Rebels from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have taken control of more towns in the country’s eastern North Kivu province, forcing government troops to retreat.
The rebels, known as the M23 movement, had captured the town of Rutshuru on Sunday, forcing thousands of civilians from their homes. This development opened the way for a possible advance on Goma, the provincial capital about 70km to the south.
The rebels said that they did not face any opposition from the FARDC, the DRC’s national army, as they captured the towns of Ntamugenga, Rubare and Bunagana, an important mineral town, siezed two days earlier.
M23’s Colonel Makenga speaks to Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, reporting from the town of Rumangabo, 50km north of Goma, said that the morale amongst the government troops was very low.
“We only found two government soldiers here. There is no running water and the conditions are absolutely appalling,” Greste said on Monday.
“M23 have surrounded this place, but not occupied it. The main focus for now seems to be on Goma.”
Colonel Sultani Makenga, the head of the M23 rebels, told reporters hours after they took Rutshuruon Sunday, that they planned to leave all the towns they’ve taken except Bunagana.
The rebels had taken the major town without a fight, after the military beat a retreat in the hours before the fighters arrived, residents and an army officer said.
“The government is going to determine if they want peace. And if they want the combats to end,” Makenga told reporters in Rutshuru.
“If the military wants to keep fighting us, we will pursue them. Our plan is to retreat from the towns under our control and to leave MONUSCO [the United Nations peacekeeping mission] and the national police. But we plan to hold Bunagana because we need to keep a distance from our enemies,” he said.
Until April, Makenga was an officer in the Congolese military. He and his men defected, accusing the government of not holding up its end of the March 23, 2009, peace deal that had paved the way for them to join the army in the first place.
Pre-2009, the members of M23 belonged to the now-defunct National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, rebel group, which at one point came within a hair of taking Goma. Rutshuru was the largest town that the CNDP previously controlled.
The new fighting in mineral-rich North Kivu province has dampened hopes of a revival for the region after a short lull in two decades of instability.
It risks dragging the vast, loosely governed central African state back into war and damaging fragile relations with Rwanda, which has repeatedly denied allegations that the rebels are receiving cross-border support.
The UN Security Council on Friday condemned attacks by the rebels on peacekeepers in the area after an Indian soldier was killed in Bunagana.
Bunagana fell into rebel hands after the clash, according to the M23 spokesman and local civilians, causing around 600 Congolese soldiers to flee into Uganda.
Despite outnumbering the rebels 10 to one, the FARDC has been unable to dislodge them from hilltop hideouts.
Rwanda has denied allegations in a report by UN experts that provided the strongest evidence yet that officials of President Paul Kagame’s government were providing military and logistical support to armed rebel groups in the DRC.
Two months of fighting in the resource-rich region has pitted government troops against former Congolese Tutsi rebels, who were integrated into the army but defected this year and formed the M23 rebel movement.