KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) — United Nations attack helicopters hit rebel positions in eastern Congo on Saturday after insurgents gained ground in heavy fighting, the United Nations said. The situation led the French Mission at the United Nations to call for an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Saturday afternoon.
The clashes, near the town of Kibumba, mean that the rebels, part of the M23 movement, have advanced to within 18 miles of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. That is the closest they have been to Goma since their rebellion began in April.
The governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku, said the army retreated to the southern outskirts of the town after M23 rebels received support from neighboring Rwanda. Rwanda rejected the accusations, the latest in a string of charges by Congo’s government, and called on both the army and the rebels to halt the fighting.
More than five million people are estimated to have died from violence, hunger and disease in wars in Congo since 1998.
United Nations experts say they have evidence of Rwanda’s support for the rebels and want the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Rwandan officials as a result.
“The Rwandan Army came across the border behind our troops, that’s why our troops withdrew,” Mr. Paluku said.
The rebels “are just a few kilometers away, so of course Goma is under threat, we can’t hide that,” he said, adding that government troops were reorganizing at Kilimanyoka, seven and a half miles north of the city.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo said army units came under heavy weapons fire early on Saturday morning, forcing civilians to flee and leading the United Nations mission to send its attack helicopters to strike rebel positions south of Kibumba.
“So far 10 missions have been carried out by our attack helicopters,” the United Nations said in a statement. The United Nations mission in Congo has a mandate to protect civilians and support government troops. No casualty figures have been given by any of the forces involved.
Rwanda’s Army has repeatedly sent soldiers into Congo during nearly two decades of conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region, but Rwanda has vehemently denied accusations by Congo and the United Nations that it is supporting the M23 rebels.
The March 23 movement, or M23, was created last spring by Congolese Army defectors who were demanding better pay, armaments and amnesty from war crimes charges. Congo’s government, backed by the United Nations peacekeepers, has been struggling to maintain control.
A rebel spokesman, Vianney Kazarama, said that the rebels were now in control of Kibumba but that they would not advance any farther.
“We’re stopping here, we’re waiting, we’re not going to Goma,” he said, calling on the government to begin negotiations with the rebels.