Congolese troops have started fighting back against rebels who rejected calls from African leaders to quit the eastern city of Goma, which was captured earlier this week.
Thousands of people fled the town of Sake yesterday as M23 rebel fighters sped from Goma to reinforce positions against a counter-offensive by the army.
The rebel movement, believed to be backed by Rwanda, has vowed to “liberate” all of the vast, resource-rich country after taking Goma, a provincial capital on the Rwandan border, ramping up tensions in a fragile region.
The head of M23’s political arm said the rebels would not retreat despite the call to do so from governments in central Africa, preferring to hold their ground until president Joseph Kabila opens direct talks.
“We’ll stay in Goma waiting for negotiations,” Jean-Marie Runiga said. “They’re going to attack us and we’re going to defend ourselves and keep on advancing.”
Rebel fighters seized the sprawling lakeside city of a million people on Tuesday after government soldiers retreated and UN peacekeepers gave up trying to defend it.
The next day the rebels moved in unopposed to Sake, about 15 miles west. It was there that government forces were hitting back in fighting that flared later on Wednesday.
Regional and world leaders have been trying to prevent the conflict spreading in the Great Lakes area, already scarred by colonial-era frontiers and ethnic and political tensions, fuelled by untapped mineral wealth.
Earlier on Wednesday, foreign ministers from the states of the Great Lakes region demanded the rebels leave Goma and halt their advance, and Mr Kabila promised to look at the guerrillas’ grievances but did not offer talks.
Neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda had no right to make demands of M23, added the group’s political chief, who styles himself Bishop Runiga, a post he holds in several Congolese churches. He said M23 wanted aid groups to return to Goma, after they left during the fighting. Gunfire could be heard across Sake last night. “It’s no problem, it’s just war,” Vianney Kazarama, an M23 spokesman, said by phone.
Several lorry-loads of M23 fighters were sent from Goma to face down the Congolese army advance.
M23 takes its name from a peace deal signed on 23 March, 2009, meant to bring former rebels into the national army, but which the group now claims the Kinshasa government has violated.
The group has since sought to broaden its support in Congo by tapping into popular frustrations over the government’s slow pace of reform.
President Kabila has faced many hurdles amid mounting evidence of Rwanda’s involvement in the insurgency. Mr Kabila’s government insists the M23 rebellion is a creation of Rwanda, under president Paul Kagame, which has intervened repeatedly in Congo over the past 18 years – a claim backed by United Nations’ experts.
Many of Rwanda’s international allies, including the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands and the European Union have suspended some aid over the allegations.
Britain, which unblocked part of its frozen aid in September, is now reconsidering its position. “We judge the overall body of evidence of Rwandan involvement with M23 in the DRC to be credible and compelling,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.