Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda resumed mortar and machine gun fire on Monday at a village just 3 kilometres outside of the crucial, provincial capital of Goma, hours after saying they were halting fighting in order to negotiate with the government of Congo.
Lambert Mende, the spokesman for the Congolese government, said by telephone that negotiations are out of the question, and that Congo will not give in to the “blackmail” of a Rwandan-backed group.
The fighting resumed in the early afternoon, erupting with unexpected violence as civilians including young children tried to run to safety. They hid in huts and behind ledges alongside the road, as tanks were seen patrolling the main roads.
The renewed clashes come one day after the M23 rebels threatened to take the city of Goma, home to at least 1 million people, as well as an international airport and a major United Nations peacekeeping base. M23 rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama initially said his fighters planned to spend the night in Goma, before issuing a long list of demands calling for the government of Congo to enter into negotiations.
On Monday afternoon, Kazarama said that Congo is to blame for the renewed hostilities, and again vowed to take Goma.
“The army provoked us. They have fired on our men. And we have the right to defend ourselves. We are going to fight until our last breath. We are going to take Goma tonight,” he said.
M23 began as a mass defection from the army in April, starting with several hundred men. Congo analyst Jason Stearns, a former member of the United Nations Group of Experts, said on his blog that the group is now believed to be composed of 2,500 to 3,000 men. On Saturday, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that the rebels were very well-equipped, including with night vision equipment allowing them to fight at night.
By contrast, the Congolese military is notoriously dysfunctional, with many soldiers not even wearing proper uniforms or boots. In 2008, when a related rebel group tried to take Goma, Congolese soldiers were seen defecting, with some literally dropping their arms and running in the opposite direction.
In a statement released on Monday, the M23 called for the immediate demilitarisation of the city and the airport in Goma, and for the opening of the border at the town of Bunagana within the next 48 hours.
The rebels also want the government to make a declaration on state TV and radio within the next 24 hours announcing the start of negotiations with the M23 rebel group. It is not clear what the rebels hope to achieve in these negotiations, and their motives are complicated by the fact that they are believed to be backed by Rwanda, according to the findings of the UN Group of Experts.
Before the fighting resumed on Monday, Kazarama told The Associated Press that his men were on their way back to Kibumba, located 30 kilometres north in order to give the talks a chance.
“We want political negotiations with the government.” He added: “This is a political matter.”
The sequence of events mirrors what happened in 2008, when a now-defunct rebel group known as the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, advanced to the gates of Goma. The CNDP, which was financially and militarily backed by Rwanda, stopped just short of taking the city, and the rapid military advance forced the government to enter into negotiations with the rebels. The peace deal brokered a year later on March 23, 2009, called for CNDP fighters to be integrated into the national army, even though many of them were believed to be Rwandan nationals and even though some were accused of grave crimes.
Particularly galling to human rights groups was the integration of one of the ex-CNDP leaders Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
This April, hundreds of men believed to be led by Ntaganda defected from the army, creating a new rebel group dubbed M23, in reference to the date of the peace deal. Their members include many of the fighters of the ex-CNDP and this weekend, in a move from the CNDP playbook, they fought their way to the outskirts of Goma, advancing over 10 kilometres in a single day in a massive show of force. Neither the Congolese army nor UN peacekeepers appeared able to stop their advance, and when they called for a halt in the fighting on Sunday afternoon, the M23 checkpoint was just 100 meters away from the Congolese checkpoint on the edge of Goma.
Reports by Human Rights Watch as well as by the UN Group of Experts indicates that the M23, like the CNDP before them, are being actively supported by Rwanda, which is providing arms, logistical help and even soldiers. Over the weekend, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, to ask him to intervene and stop the offensive, according to a statement issued at UN headquarters in New York.