GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congo’s government ordered the Rwandan ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours Saturday after a rapid advance by M23 rebels near their shared border led two more towns to fall under rebel control.
The expulsion of Ambassador Vincent Karega came the same day that M23 rebels doubled the territory they control. Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the rebels, an allegation Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
The decision by Congo’s high defense council was expected to further ratchet up tensions between the two countries whose relations have been fraught for decades.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
GOMA, Congo (AP) – Rebels seized control of two major towns in eastern Congo and doubled the territory they hold after fierce fighting Saturday with the Congolese military, a civil society leader and residents said.
The intensification of fighting threatened to once again ratchet up tensions between Congo and neighboring Rwanda. Congo has long accused Rwanda of backing the M23 rebellion, an allegation that Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO said four of its peacekeepers were wounded in Kiwanja on Saturday and warned it would “retaliate vigorously” if there were “further aggression against its bases.”
Fierce fighting erupted Saturday morning between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Kiwanja, which is 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the regional capital, Goma.
John Banyene, president of the local civil society, later told The Associated Press that the rebels now controlled both Kiwanja and Rutshuru Centre.
“As we speak, we confirm that the M23 rebels and their allies control the town of Kiwanja, but the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are not giving up,” Banyene told journalists in Goma.
Daniel Subuka, a Kiwanja resident contacted by telephone by AP, said he saw well-armed M23 rebels making their way into Kiwanja and others heading toward Rutshuru Centre.
There was no immediate confirmation from Congolese authorities or the military on the reported seizure of the two towns.
However, the U.N. peacekeeping mission put out a statement saying it “strongly condemns the hostile actions of the M23 and their serious consequences on the civilian population.”
MONUSCO “warns that it stands ready to retaliate vigorously in the event of further aggression against its bases,” the statement said, detailing that two of the wounded peacekeepers had been hit by mortar fire.
The M23 rose to prominence more than a decade ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in Congo’s east, which sits along the border with Rwanda. After a peace deal, many of M23′s fighters were integrated into the national military.
Then the group re-emerged last November, saying the government had failed to live up to its decade-long promises. By June, they had seized the strategic town of Bunagana near the border with Uganda.
Nearly 200,000 people already had been displaced over the past year even before the latest surge in violence, which is now blamed for forcing at least 40,000 people to flee in only a week’s time.
M23 has been a flashpoint for relations between Congo and Rwanda: Many of the M23 fighters are Congolese ethnic Tutsis and Rwanda’s president is of Rwandan Tutsi descent.
In August, a report by U.N. experts said they had “solid evidence” that members of Rwanda’s armed forces were conducting operations in eastern Congo in support of the M23 rebel group.
Rwanda, though, has repeatedly denied the allegations and has accused Congolese forces of injuring several civilians in cross-border shelling.
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