GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congolese troops came under fire from rebels in the country’s volatile east Monday as fighting resumed just outside Goma, a city of nearly 1 million people near the volatile Congolese-Rwandan border, army officials said.
Heavy weapons fire rang out around 4:30 p.m. near the front line just 9 miles (11 kilometers) outside the city.
Hostilities resumed last week after weeks of relative calm, and by Thursday a new United Nations intervention brigade with a stronger mandate than past missions shelled rebel positions for the first time.
Both sides suffered heavy casualties over the weekend, with more than 50 rebels killed and 23 government soldiers dead, according to a doctor near the front line and an army chaplain. Three U.N. peacekeepers were wounded: two South Africans and a Tanzanian, U.N.-backed Radio Okapi reported.
The head of the United Nations mission in Congo, Martin Kobler, visited two hospitals on Sunday and paid his respects to wounded government and U.N. soldiers, hailing them as “heroes fighting to restore peace,” Radio Okapi reported.
The Congolese forces have advanced less than a mile (about 2 kilometers) since Wednesday and have yet to achieve their immediate objective – cutting off M23 from a border crossing where the rebel group is believed to get supplies from neighboring Rwanda, say observers.
The Congolese are fighting with the help of a new United Nations intervention brigade, which was created after the M23 rebels invaded and briefly held Goma last November.
The M23 has been pounding Goma from their positions just north of the strategic city, killing civilians in Goma’s residential neighborhoods. By Saturday, scores of angry residents took to the streets in protest, claiming that the U.N. had not done enough to protect them. A U.N. car was set on fire, and in the melee two protesters were killed.
Some Goma residents claim the U.N. opened fire on the mob, but the President of Uruguay Jose Mujica said in a statement over the weekend that Uruguayan peacekeepers had only fired rubber bullets to control the crowd. Mujica said that it was Congolese police who had used live ammunition.
On Monday, the Congolese government called for an investigation into the deaths of the civilians. Minister of the Interior Richard Muyej told The Associated Press: “We are absolutely in agreement that a joint commission needs to be created (to investigate what happened.)”
Medical services were struggling to cope with the scale of the casualties among government troops and the M23 fighters who launched their rebellion last year and briefly held Goma in November before retreating. Subsquent peace talks in neighboring Uganda have repeatedly stalled.
Dr. Isaac Warwanamiza told The Associated Press he had seen 82 bodies since early Sunday, 23 of whom he claimed were government soldiers, the highest death toll reported since hostilities broke out last week.
“I’m overwhelmed by what I’ve seen: bodies blown apart, arms and feet here and there,” he said, speaking by phone from a hospital north of Goma.
Eight of the dead had no uniforms, 23 were government troops and the rest were M23 rebels, the doctor added.
The total of wounded Congolese troops at the military hospital is 720, according to army chaplain Lea Masika.
This is the first time that the Congolese army has been backed by the new U.N. intervention force, which was created in March.
The U.N. brigade was given a mandate to fight the rebels after Goma was seized by the M23 in November last year. In a humiliating blow to both Congo and the international community, the rebels marched directly past U.N. peacekeepers stationed at the gates of this city. The peacekeepers did nothing to stop them, because their mandate at the time was limited to protecting civilians.
The M23 is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009. Many of the movement’s commanders are veterans of previous rebellions backed by Rwanda, which vigorously denies allegations that it has been supporting and reinforcing the M23.
In Washington, the United States State Department condemned the actions of the M23, calling on the rebel group to immediately cease hostilities, disarm and disband. The U.S. also suggested that Rwanda is assisting the rebels.
“We urgently call on (Congolese) and Rwandan governments to exercise restraint to prevent military escalation of the conflict or any action that puts civilians at risk,” the statement said. “We reiterate our call for Rwanda to cease any and all support to the M23.”