The United Nations has expressed shock at the sight of thousands of civilians fleeing a rebel advance in the eastern DR Congo and appealed for access to help those caught up in the violence.
Thousands of civilians are fleeing the town of Sake in eastern DR Congo as M23 rebels battling government troops threaten to overrun the city.
Fighters pushed south along Lake Kivu near the new rebel stronghold of Goma on the Rwandan border on Friday.
The rebels’ advance comes days after they took Goma, the biggest city in North Kivu province, and have vowed to expand their territorial control and even seize the capital, Kinshasa, although the city is 1,574km away.
The fighting has sparked fears of a wider conflict erupting in the chronically unstable region, and the rebels have largely ignored calls made in a joint communique by the presidents of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda to pull out of Goma.
An AFP photographer said the latest fighting had claimed one life in Sake. He said he saw a body in the city centre on Friday, a day after the rebels entered the city, while the head of a relief agency reported numerous casualties.
“There are bodies lining the road” leading south from Sake, Thierry Goffeau, who heads the Goma chapter of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told AFP, without providing specific figures.
Government officials said on Thursday that Congolese troops were trying to repulse the rebels but M23 appeared to have successfully repelled the counterattack.
The UN estimate that 140,000 people in and around Goma have been displaced in recent fighting.
Aid officials said the fighting has made camps for people displaced by earlier conflicts inaccessible, with food and medicines running short.
A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the country, known under the acronym MONUSCO, described the situation in eastern DR Congo as “alarming”.
“The M23 are now present in Sake, with reports indicating that they may be on the move toward Masisi territory, which is their stronghold,” Kieran Dwyer said in a statement.
|Camps for displaced people are overflowing after the recent fighting [Evelyn Kahungu/Al Jazeera]
The UN has an estimated 6,700 troops in North Kivu backing up government forces under a Security Council mandate to protect civilians. They have been criticised for not directly confronting the M23.
MONUSCO has airlifted dozens of local leaders and rights activists who feared for their lives out of rebel territory, Dwyer said,
The UN mission was also verifying reports of civilians wounded or killed due to the recent fighting in Goma and Sake, he added.
“There are also reports of targeted killings and health personnel being abducted by the M23. Reports of recruitment and abduction of children by the group continue,” he said.
M23 military leader Bosco Ntaganda is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
Meanwhile, in Kinshasa, protesters accused the rebels of abuses including the rape of pregnant women. Hundreds of women, clad in black, marched on the UN mission’s headquarters, carrying banners calling for peace and criticising the country’s small but militarily powerful neighbour. “No to Rwanda!” read one.
The M23 fighters are widely thought to be backed by neighbouring Rwanda.
The UN Security Council has expressed “concern at reports indicating that external support continues to be provided to the M23, including through troop reinforcement, tactical advice and the supply of equipment”.
The council did not name Rwanda whose experts have previously accused it of backing the rebels, who share the same Tutsi ethnicity with Rwandan President Paul Kagame but are Congolese.
The rebels advanced as their political chief Jean-Marie Runiga was due to meet the president of Uganda on the eve of the Kampala summit of leaders from Africa’s Great Lakes region.
Regional and international leaders are scrambling to halt the latest violence in the Great Lakes area, fuelled by a mix of local and regional politics, ethnic rifts and competition for
big reserves of gold, tin and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in electronics and other high-value products.
The rebellion was launched eight months ago by mutinous troops accusing the government of failing to stick to a 2009 deal with fighters to end a previous conflict.
The rebels take their name – M23 – after that peace agreement which was signed on March 23, 2009.