GOMA, DRC— The United Nations Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a new-style U.N. peacekeeping force with a uniquely robust mandate, has finally started fighting, the DRC government said Friday. The force of more than 3,000 troops, mainly from Tanzania and South Africa, has been in eastern Congo for nearly three months and on Thursday opened fire on the M23 rebels.
This was the moment many people in eastern Congo had been waiting for, DRC government spokesman Lambert Mende said at a press conference. "I think we can simply welcome the fact that the brigade has gone into action, since yesterday. It’s a good thing, better late than never.”
There were about 16,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Congo before the brigade deployed, but they had taken little part in the government's attempt to neutralize the M23 rebels. Doubts had been rising whether the new-style brigade would be any different.
In a second day of fighting Thursday between the army and the M23, some 17 kilometers north of Goma, however, the brigade’s artillery unit from Tanzania fired its field artillery at the rebels’ positions, according to international observers and sources within the Congolese army.
It is unclear who started the latest clashes. An army officer told VOA that government troops had advanced four kilometers since Wednesday, but other sources believe they have moved forward less than two kilometers.
Either way, the city of Goma is still within range of M23 rockets. The M23 captured the strategic objective in November, but then evacuated under international pressure.
Mende said 11 rockets fell on Goma and its outskirts Thursday, killing at least one person and wounding 12. He said experts reported that the missiles were fired from Rwanda. Rwanda has consistently denied supporting M23 and has said that missiles were fired from Congo into Rwandan territory in the past two days.
Experts, including a Congolese army officer, said the rockets that hit Goma more likely had been fired from the M23’s positions.
Mende was asked by a journalist whether DRC should cut off diplomatic relations with Rwanda over the allegations that it has been supporting M23, and that rockets have been fired from its territory at Congo, and his answer was effectively, no.
He said Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, answered that question when he said he would follow the advice of regional leaders by not declaring war on Rwanda or cutting ties with that country.
Mende noted that the president had withdrawn his ambassador from Kigali, though, leaving only lower ranking diplomats at the DRC embassy there.
Congolese army sources say that only the Tanzanian troops in the Intervention Brigade have fired at the M23 so far, and they did so from some ways behind the government forces' front lines.
A U.N. source said the South African government is not reluctant to combat the M23 rebels, but its forces were not needed in the latest engagement, which required only the use of the Tanzanian field artillery unit.
The intervention brigade commander used to be Tanzania’s highest ranking artillery commander.