Kinshasa — The army in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo gained ground from M23 rebels in fighting on Monday, seizing back control of a major military base as the UN Security Council prepared to hold emergency talks on the crisis.
“We have taken the military base at Rumangabo,” which lies about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Goma, the strategic capital of embattled North Kivu province, Lieutenant-Colonel Olivier Hamuli told AFP.
“We fought, but not for very long – the enemy is demoralised by the strength of (our) firepower,” Hamuli said on the fourth day of an offensive against the M23, following the suspension of peace talks in Uganda.
The battlezone is the Rutshuru region of North Kivu province, which is rich in minerals and agricultural produce and has been fought over for more than two decades by a range of armed groups.
Government soldiers on Sunday took Kiwanja, close to a large military base of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO), which has thousands of troops deployed in the east, including a new brigade with an offensive mandate to tackle rebel forces.
A MONUSCO officer told AFP that “more than 70” fighters from M23 surrendered to UN forces at Kiwanja. “The FARDC (Congolese army) certainly also has prisoners and in greater numbers.”
“About 20 rebels surrendered to the FARDC on the Kiwanja road,” Hamuli said, adding that other members of the mainly Tutsi M23, which consists of army deserters, had turned themselves in during the capture of Rutshuru town and the Rumangabo base.
A UN Tanzanian soldier was killed in Kiwanja, the third to lose his life in the special brigade. “The soldier died while protecting the people of Kiwanja,” MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler said a statement.
Few wider casualty figures were available and Hamuli could not say how many rebels had surrendered.
“At Rutshuru hospital, we took in a dozen wounded people, one of whom died. They were all civilians,” said a doctor who asked to remain anonymous. He added that a woman was shot dead in the town.
The United Nations, the European Union and the United States have called on the Kinshasa government and the Movement of March 23 to resume peace negotiations, but President Joseph Kabila’s regime has made clear several times that it wants to wipe out the rebels and gives no impression of wishing to go back into talks.
The UN Security Council plans to meet on Monday to hold emergency talks on the new surge of fighting. UN chief Ban Ki-moon offered his condolences to the family of the Tanzanian soldier, then stated that the United Nations “remains committed to taking all necessary actions … to protect civilians” in eastern DR Congo.
Foreign military sources on the ground estimated that the number of M23 fighters has been reduced to less than 1,000. The movement emerged in April 2012 with a mutiny by former rebels who had been taken into the army under a 2009 deal.
The M23 accused Kinshasa of failing to keep the terms of that deal, then on-off talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala stalled on the government’s refusal to give an amnesty to about 80 rebel leaders.