Renewed fighting between Democratic Republic of Congo government soldiers and the M23 rebels could deal a major blow to an ongoing peace initiative by Great Lakes governments.
Fears of fresh hostilities between Rwanda and DRC have also emerged after Kigali reported that the fighting had left scores of people inside Rwanda injured by stray bullets.
The fighting, near the Rwandan border, comes two weeks after an incident in which a Congolese officer who crossed into Rwanda during an exchange between DRC government soldiers (FARDC) and Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF), was shot dead.
The fighting has interrupted the peace that had been brokered by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), led by its chairman, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni. The ICGLR had mooted a neutral force of 4,000 troops to be sent to eastern DRC, but this is yet to materialise.
Rwanda has already expressed concern that the new fighting will undermine the ongoing ICGLR peace process. “The resumption of fighting between FARDC and M23 violates directives agreed by the 11 member states of the ICGLR who are working to restore peace in the eastern DRC,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, urging the Congolese army and M23 to respect the decisions of the ICGLR on cessation of hostilities.
She also feared for Rwandans: “This violence close to our border has direct repercussions on us — we have already seen civilians injured today from stray bullets on Rwandan territory, as well as a renewed influx of Congolese refugees. We do not want any further casualties.”
The Rwanda government has reported that more refugees are crossing into its territory to join thousands already hosted, following the conflict that broke out in April displacing over 250,000 people.
Kigali, which has been accused of backing the M23 rebels — allegations it vehemently denies — has called on the warring sides to hold their fire to allow the ICGLR efforts to restore peace to bear fruit.
(Read: UN report links Rwanda to Congolese violence)
Kigali said the FARDC, M23 and other armed groups in DRC must stop fighting because they continue to jeopardise ongoing regional efforts to bring about lasting peace and security in eastern DRC. “We look forward to the findings of the ICGLR Joint Verification Mechanism that is already on the ground and Joint Intelligence Fusion Centre on this situation, and hope that this will facilitate immediate containment,” the Ms Mushikiwabo said.
The expanded Joint Verification Mechanism, previously a bilateral arrangement between Rwanda and DRC designed to verify allegations against either side, was enlarged in September to include representatives from all the ICGLR member states.
As the renewed hostilities broke out, both sides accused each other of starting the fighting after a three-month lull, with Kinshasa claiming that the rebels were the first to breach the truce, while the rebels claim that government forces attacked their bases first. DRC government spokesperson Lambert Mende told the media in Kinshasa that the rebels attacked government positions first on Thursday morning, 30km north of Goma, but rebel spokesperson Col Jean Marie Vianney Kazarama told The EastAfrican they were provoked first.
“Mende knows we were provoked. We are determined to protect our territory and we support peace efforts by regional countries, so we cannot start fighting unless we are attacked and we fight back in self-defence,” Col Kazarama said in a phone interview.
The rebels also dismissed claims by the Congolese government that they sustained many casualties during the Thursday to Friday fighting, losing six fighters. On Friday, The Daily Monitor of Uganda reported that 113 rebels had been killed in the fighting.
“It is not true,” Col Kazarama said, insisting that there were no casualties on their side.
According to the DRC government, the rebels were intent on advancing on Goma but were thwarted. Mr Mende said the rebels could have targeted disrupting the meeting of army officers with ICGLR who were in Goma to finalise the JVM report.
The fresh fighting came just after the US government announced sanctions against top M23 commanders including Col Sultan Makenga whom they accuse of committing atrocities.
(Read: The Ntaganda factor in DR Congo conflict)