Goma – M23 rebels and Democratic Republic of Congo troops clashed heavily in North Kivu province on Friday as Angola’s president pursued diplomatic efforts to bring peace between neighbours Kinshasa and Kigali.
Tensions between DRC and Rwanda are at their highest in years, with the DRC accusing its smaller neighbour of backing the M23, charges the Rwandan government denies.
In eastern DRC, local people reported hearing heavy artillery fire around Rugari, in Rutshuru territory, from early morning as the army targeted M23 combatants.
The DRC military had this week deployed Sukhoi-25 jets and Mi-24 helicopters against the M23, a mainly Tutsi Congolese militia.
The clashes sent more people fleeing for safety, one witness told AFP by telephone from Rumangabo, 10 kilometres (six miles) from Rugari.
“We can hear the sound of the bombing,” he said.
Medical sources said at least five civilians, including two children, were killed and 11 wounded in Friday’s fighting.
The artillery fire was coming from Kibumba on a main road which runs to the regional capital Goma.
An AFP reporter on the edge of the city saw an army tank and lorry loaded with munitions heading towards the combat zone.
“Fighting continues at Rugari. We are making progress,” a security source said.
During the afternoon, power was disrupted in Goma after a transmission line from a hydroelectric plant was hit, Virunga Energies said.
Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) said gunmen had attacked UN-backed school canteens in the Rutshuru area, which is under M23 control.
“Six primary schools were targeted for now and food stocks taken forcibly,” a WFP statement said.
“Armed groups came with lorries and took the stocks that were at the schools in Kiwanja and Rutshuru,” said the WFP coordinator for the region.
“At the moment, in Rutshuru territory, it’s M23 who are active. Obviously we suspect them, because they control the two towns,” in North Kivu province, he added.
The M23 has won a string of victories against the DRC’s army in North Kivu province in recent weeks, dramatically increasing the territory under its control.
Mineral-rich DRC is struggling to contain dozens of armed militias including the M23, which rose to prominence in 2012, briefly occupying Goma.
But after laying mostly dormant for years, it resumed fighting in 2021, claiming the DRC had failed to honour a pledge to integrate them into the army, among other grievances.
Eastern DRC has been plagued for nearly three decades by armed groups, many of them inherited from the wars that bloodied the region in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Angolan President Joao Lourenco was visiting Rwanda on Friday as part of diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute with the DRC and is due in Kinshasa on Saturday.
Kinshasa expelled Rwanda’s ambassador at the end of last month, while also recalling its envoy from Kigali.
Lourenco was to hold talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame “as part of the regional efforts to normalise relations between Rwanda and DR Congo”, the ruling party newspaper The New Times said.
The meeting comes on the heels of talks between the countries’ two foreign ministers who agreed on Saturday to accelerate efforts to resolve the diplomatic crisis.
A roadmap for ending hostilities had been reached at an Angola-brokered summit between Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi in July.
On Wednesday, Kenya’s parliament approved the deployment of more than 900 troops to the DRC as part of a regional force established to try to restore security in the east.
Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta, the East African Community bloc’s mediator for the situation, will visit Kinshasa on Sunday for a 48-hour working visit, the DRC’s presidency said.