The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has withdrawn troops from the eastern military base of Rumangabo, ceding ground in the battle against the M23 rebel group.
UN troops have been supporting Congolese forces against the M23, which launched a new offensive in October and seized the town of Kiwanja on Saturday, breaking months of relative calm.
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“We have made a strategic and tactical withdrawal from Rumangabo, in consultation with our partners, to better prepare the next steps together,” the UN mission, known as MONUSCO, said in a post on Twitter on Tuesday.
It did not provide further details.
The M23 resumed fighting in late 2021 after lying dormant for years, accusing the DRC government of failing to honour an agreement to integrate its fighters into the army
The front line between the Congolese military and the M23 had been calm for several weeks, but fresh clashes from October 20 saw the rebel group make advances across North Kivu province.
The loss of the key military base is a setback for DRC and a further blow to the security outlook in the conflict-hit east, even as thousands remain displaced from the region.
“It’s [Kiwanja’s] fall is another humiliation for [the government in] Kinshasa. But it also raises serious questions, once again, of how an extremely small rebellion can do this on their own,” said Jason Stearns, the founder of the Congo Studies Group, a research institute at New York University.
The crisis has also deepened a standoff with neighbouring Rwanda over its alleged support for the rebels, which it denies. In October, Kinshasa expelled Rwanda’s ambassador to the DRC.
In August, UN experts said they had found solid evidence Rwanda had been providing military aid to M23 in eastern DRC. Rwanda’s government has disputed the findings.
Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu province, has been effectively cut off from the upper half of the province since the capture of Kiwanja. More than 90,000 people have fled their homes since fighting resumed on October 20, according to the UN.
The escalation prompted East African heads of state to hold a joint call on Tuesday and schedule a meeting of their defense chiefs to address the security crisis, the office of Burundi’s president said in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, who has extensively covered the conflict in eastern DRC, said on Wednesday that local residents in Goma feel that the UN peacekeepers who have been there since 2000, have failed in stemming insecurity there.
“In recent months, we’ve seen protests in Goma against both Rwanda and the UN …the people in Congo feel this is something that has gone on for far too long,” he said.
On Wednesday, President William Ruto deployed a batch of troops as part of a regional peacekeeping force to help stem the tide of chaos in the DRC.