Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include a response from M23 spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka.
The M23 rebels have seized the strategic town of Kitshanga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after days of fierce fighting, drawing condemnation from the UN.
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The DRC’s army on Friday confirmed its forces withdrew, calling it a tactical move to protect civilians in the face of a renewed offensive by the rebel fighters.
“We have tactically withdrawn from the city in order to attract these genocidal forces deep into the city and avoid the worst for our people in Kitshanga,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Ndjike, spokesman for the military governor of North Kivu.
“We are making every effort to dislodge this enemy,” he told the AFP news agency.
The rebels took control of Kitshanga late on Thursday after capturing several villages on the road linking the town of about 60,000 people to the provincial capital Goma about 90 kilometres (55 miles) apart.
Videos on social media appeared to show fighters in the M23 group celebrating and claiming they had captured the town. Al Jazeera could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos.
M23′s political spokesman, Lawrence Kanyuka, in a statement on Thursday accused government troops of attacking civilians in Kitchanga and elsewhere, and said the rebel group was “obliged to intervene and stop another genocide”.
“We have just been through the war in Kitchanga, we saw M23 killing people, we were afraid, that’s why we fled so we wouldn’t die, too,” Angelique Mukeshimana told The Associated Press news agency. The mother of four went to a makeshift displacement site on the outskirts of Goma.
“For months, M23 have been moving towards Kitshanga and Masisi as they fight Congo army, which is widely reported to be backed by militias. Though Congo has denied it,” Al Jazeera’s Malcom Webb said reporting from the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
“Sources in the Congo army said that two days ago battalion of soldiers crossed from Rwanda to reinforce M23,” he added. “That helped the rebels in taking control of Kitshanga. And that means that M23 now control the road from Kitshanga to Goma.”
Kanyuka told Al Jazeera that reports of killing in Kitshanga were false. “How can M23 kill where [it] is not present and had to intervene to stop the killing…committed by DRC government coalition?
UN calls for the ceasing of hostilities
The UN peacekeeping mission, known by its acronym MONUSCO, said more than 500 people, including women and children, are seeking refuge at its base in the town of Kitshanga.
MONUSCO spokesperson Ndeye Khady Lo said civilians fleeing from Kitchanga have been given tents, food, water and first aid.
“The M23 must cease all hostilities and withdraw from the occupied areas,” Lo told the AP.
Months of intensified fighting have displaced at least 450,000 people.
Regional leaders agreed in November that M23 fighters would withdraw from the eastern areas of the DRC, but the M23 has been accused of violating the terms of the ceasefire.
Goma, home to more than one million people, located just on the Rwandan border, was already cut off from the north after rebels took National Highway 2 during their offensive in October and November.
The M23, which Kinshasa has claimed is backed by Rwanda, took up arms at the end of 2021 and has since seized parts of Rutshuru and Nyiragongo, north of Goma. United Nations experts and the European Union have accused Rwanda of backing the M23.
Rwanda has denied backing the group, which is one of the dozens operating in mineral-rich eastern Congo.
Under diplomatic pressure and under the supervision of a regional force deployed in the region, the rebels announced their withdrawal in December and January from two captured areas.
The fighting came days before Pope Francis was due in the DRC capital Kinshasa for a three-day visit. The trip was originally supposed to include a stop in the east, however, the Vatican scrapped that amid the rising violence.