Thousands of people have been displaced in the volatile eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as fighting between the army and M23 rebels moved close to the key city of Goma, an army spokesman has said.
Clashes picked up again in North Kivu province on Friday, ending about a week of relative calm since the group launched their latest offensive on October 20.
Battles have broken out around the villages of Kibumba, Rugari and Tongo, North-Kivu army spokesman Guillaume Ndjike said on Monday.
Kibumba is about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Goma, which the M23 briefly overran during their first big insurrection in 2012. “They are attacking but we are containing them and taking initiatives to push them back,” Ndjike told the Reuters news agency.
A Tongo resident who did not wish to be named said by telephone that the army had left and that people were fleeing en masse. A witness in Kibumba painted a similar picture.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Kibati village approximately 15km (9 miles) away from Goma, said the Congolese government forces initially repelled M23’s attack on the town of Kibumba after more than a day of heavy fighting.
That has come against the backdrop of a looming humanitarian crisis, as displaced people sleep in makeshift camps in the area and complain about having little food for now.
“Meanwhile, community leaders on the other side of the front line have told us that about 60,000 people are stuck behind the front line in the territory held by the M23 rebel group and that they want a humanitarian corridor to be created so they can leave that area before the fighting gets closer to them,” Webb said.
Hundreds have fled to Kibati in recent days.
Kibati has set up three camps for internally displaced people over the past month. Some have taken refuge in houses already abandoned by residents moving further south, according to a Reuters reporter.
Insecurity has prevented humanitarian assistance.
“I left my wife and children behind, I didn’t even take clothes,” said Ndazimana Kasigwa, aged 25, who came from Rugari.
At least 188,000 have been displaced in North Kivu since October 20, according to the United Nations.
Diplomacy and dialogue
The M23 have staged a considerable comeback in the eastern DRC this year since they were chased into neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda in 2013.
Tens of thousands have fled fresh fighting that has caused a diplomatic rift between the DRC and Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the Tutsi-led group. Rwanda denies any involvement.
Rights groups and military sources have said the M23 is using drone surveillance and the UN has said the group is using sophisticated weaponry and available evidence points to it being backed by Rwanda.
The M23 has also said the Congolese army is fighting alongside other armed groups, a charge that military authorities deny.
More than 3,000 new Congolese military recruits began training earlier this month, after a plea from President Felix Tshisekedi.
Regional efforts are under way to cool tensions between the two countries and end the conflict unfolding along their shared border.
Kenya’s ex-President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been in the DRC this week before peace negotiations with armed groups took place, said talks in Nairobi would be held before the end of the month – later than the original proposed date of this Wednesday.
“We have not come here with a prescription but rather with the idea of listening to our brothers and sisters and hope to be able to make a contribution towards bringing lasting peace,” he said late on Monday after meeting various stakeholders.
Angolan President Joao Lourenco mediated earlier talks between Congolese and Rwandan officials in Luanda and visited both nations over the past weekend.
Guinea-Bissau President and Chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Umaro Sissoco Embalo, has also travelled to Kinshasa and Kigali.
An M23 leader, Bertrand Bisimwa, blamed the DRC’s army for starting a war against the group.
“They are not taking responsibility for their initiative,” he told Reuters by telephone.