GOMA – Hundreds of civilians fled their homes on Thursday as the M23 rebel group captured Kitshanga – a strategic town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – DRC from government troops, in its latest seizure of territory in North Kivu province.
The rebels took the town on Thursday evening, after capturing several villages on the road that links the same town to the provincial capital Goma.
Kitshanga sits on the last open route between North Kivu’s main economic hubs of Goma and Butembo. The others were cut off due to the fighting.
“We tactically withdrew outside the city, in order to attract these genocidaires in depth and to avoid the worst for our populations of Kitshanga”, said Lt Col Guillaume Ndjike – spokesman of the military governor of North Kivu.
“We are doing everything we can to dislodge this enemy,” he added.
“We are with rebels here in the city,” said a Kitshanga resident interviewed from Goma.
“The M23 controls all of Kitshanga and this morning the rebels were advancing towards Mweso.”
Kinshasa for months has accused neighbouring Rwanda of supporting the M23 group — whose origins lie in the region’s ethnic fighting — and powerful voices in the West have openly agreed. Rwanda has since denied backing the group, which is one of the dozens operating in the mineral-rich east.
At a Nov. 23 summit in Angola, which included Congo’s president and Rwanda’s foreign minister, regional leaders called for a cease-fire in eastern Congo to be followed by a withdrawal of rebels from major towns under M23 control.
The group said it would leave some of the occupied territories before Jan. 15, but some areas remain under its control and it’s seeking to capture others from government forces. M23 has been accused by the United Nations and rights groups of atrocities against civilians.
Many of Kitshanga’s inhabitants fled Thursday’s violence.
“We have just been through the war in Kitshanga, we saw M23 killing people, we were afraid, that’s why we fled so we wouldn’t die too,” said Angelique Mukeshimana. The mother of four went to a makeshift displacement site on the outskirts of Goma, some 150 kilometres away, leaving all her belongings behind.
The fighting comes days before Pope Francis is due in Congo’s capital Kinshasa for a three-day visit. The trip was originally supposed to include a stop in the east; however, the Vatican scrapped that amid the rising violence.
M23′s political spokesman, Lawrence Kanyuka, in a statement on Thursday accused government troops of attacking civilians in Kitchanga and elsewhere, and said the rebel group was ‘obliged to intervene and stop another genocide.’
A spokesperson for a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo said more than 500 civilians have taken refuge in and around the U.N. peacekeeping base in Kitchanga, where they’ve been given tents, food, water and first aid.
“The M23 must cease all hostilities and withdraw from the occupied areas,” said Ndeye Khady Lo.
Analysts say the rebel group’s drive to expand has devastating consequences for civilians.
“If reports that the group has taken control of Kitshanga … are true, this is yet another indication of the group’s on-going territorial ambitions and apparent unwillingness to withdraw,” said Daniel Levine-Spound, a researcher at the Centre for Civilians in Conflict.
“The group’s continued westward expansion also raises meaningful fears that M23 could seek to fully encircle Goma. Sustained international pressure, including on M23’s backers, will be critical in halting the group’s advance,” he said.
Largely comprised of Congolese ethnic Tutsis, M23 rose to prominence 10 years ago when it seized Goma on the border with Rwanda. It’s part of a long line of rebel groups linked with Rwanda since the 1990s when the country sought out ethnic Hutu militias, who had fled to Congo after killing Rwandan Tutsis during the genocide.