GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO— The rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo has repeated its call for a ceasefire after last week’s fighting outside the city of Goma. The rebels have also warned that in their current position they can easily target Goma airport.
It is still not clear who started the fighting last week a few kilometers north of Goma or how it started.
Congo's government says M23 launched an attack, while M23 says their men were fetching water and ran into some government allies and a firefight broke out and escalated.
What is clear is that the M23 now commands a highly strategic position north of Goma, a hill with a clear view of the airport runway lined up in their artillery’s sights.
On Tuesday, M23 spokesman Rene Abandi showed journalists the view from the hill at Mutaho.
"I was just showing how we are dominating the international airport of Goma. We also are in some sense protecting the airport because our soldiers are disciplined and there is nothing that can happen. If we are seeking a ceasefire it is not because we are weak, it is because we need peace," Abandi said.
Several houses at Mutaho have been damaged or destroyed by shellfire. Spent cartridges are another sign there was fighting here recently, as both the government and rebels have stated.
Meanwhile, the civil society association of North Kivu province says neighboring Rwanda sent four battalions into Congo last week. It says one of those battalions fought at Mutaho, and a Rwandan lieutenant colonel was killed there and buried in Kigali a few days ago.
Rwanda has previously denied supporting M23, and the M23's Abandi dismisses the allegation as government propaganda.
"It’s very ridiculous. A Rwandan colonel died here and was buried in Kigali. You see it’s like saying, for example, people who are fighting for us came from Mars. How can I reply? We would like to know -- that commander was commanding which battalion, when, when it came, and when it came back. And only a colonel died, can you imagine? When a battalion or a brigade is fighting and only a colonel dies?," Abandi said.
The civil society group has given what it says are the battalions’ numbers, and a date when it says they went back.
For its part, the M23 accuses the government side of relying on Rwandan rebels for support. Abandi said the Congo-based Rwandan rebel group FDLR was fighting alongside government troops at Mutaho.
The United Nations is currently deploying a so-called intervention brigade of more than 3,000 African troops with a mandate to carry out targeted attacks on armed groups in eastern Congo.
Abandi said if the brigade attacks M23, it will be very difficult for the rebels to distinguish between the brigade and the 17,000 peacekeepers who are part of the U.N. mission in Congo, MONUSCO. Those peacekeepers are mostly deployed to protect civilians at displaced peoples’ camps and elsewhere.
"It’s a very complicated situation for us. Blue helmets who come with an offensive mandate while others are deployed in the same areas with a peacekeepers' mandate. So it’s very difficult for us and actually they have really to separate areas so that we can make the distinction," Abandi said.
Fourteen aid organizations that are active in eastern Congo raised the same issue this week in a joint letter to Mary Robinson, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy to the Great Lakes region.
"The issue of how the brigade is related to the rest of the mission and how independent humanitarian actors such as NGOs relate to MONUSCO is I think a very big issue. We have to preserve independent humanitarian access," said Frances Charles, spokesperson for the non-governmental organization World Vision in eastern DRC.
The NGOs are also calling on the U.N. not to let the intervention brigade be seen as the sole solution to the eastern DRC’s crisis, or allow it to detract from what they describe as the need for the government to reform the Congolese army and improve governance.