GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels seized two major towns in eastern Congo after fierce fighting Saturday, doubling the territory they now control, a civil society leader and residents said.
Fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels intensified in the vicinity of Rutshuru Centre and Kiwanja on Saturday, with heavy gunfire breaking out in the morning.
John Banyene, president of the local civil society, told The Associated Press that the rebels now controlled Rutshuru Centre and Kiwanja, which is 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the regional capital, Goma.
“As we speak, we confirm that the M23 rebels and their allies control the town of Kiwanja, but the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are not giving up,” Banyene told journalists in Goma.
There was no immediate confirmation from Congolese authorities or the military on the reported seizure of the two towns.
Daniel Subuka, a Kiwanja resident contacted by telephone by AP, said he saw well-armed M23 rebels making their way into Kiwanja and others heading toward Rutshuru Centre.
The M23 rebels had been largely inactive for nearly a decade before they reemerged last November in eastern Congo. Authorities say nearly 200,000 people have been displaced even before the latest surge in violence over the last week.
Congo’s government has accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting the M23, an allegation Rwanda’s government has repeatedly denied.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo known as MONUSCO tweeted Saturday that it “strongly condemns the hostile actions of M23 and their serious repercussions on the civilian population.”
MONUSCO said it has raised the alert level of its troops, which are deployed to support the Congolese army in its operation against the M23, and said it is providing air support, intelligence and equipment.