KINSHASA – Government troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said they had gained more ground against M23 rebels Monday as the head of the U.N. mission in the country described the movement as finished.
“Practically all M23 positions were abandoned yesterday, except for a small triangle at the Rwandan border,” Martin Kobler told the U.N. Security Council by video link, according to diplomats.
He said that the M23 had abandoned a key position on Mount Hehu, near the Rwandan border, reportedly adding, “It is practically the military end of the M23.”
A Tanzanian U.N. soldier was killed in the fighting Sunday, but the rebels were rolled back and local civilians were overjoyed, Kobler said, according to officials present at the closed-door meeting.
Troops seized back control of a major military base at Rumanagabo, which lies about 40 km north of Goma, the strategic capital of embattled North Kivu province, Lt. Col. Olivier Hamuli said.
“We fought, but not for very long — the enemy is demoralized by the strength of (our) firepower,” Hamuli said on the fourth day of an offensive against the M23, following the suspension of peace talks in Uganda.
Troops recaptured two other towns, Kiwanja and Rutshuru, at the weekend and heavy fighting was reported at Kibumba, around 25 km from Goma, where soldiers cleaning up the area made the grim discovery of three mass graves.
One witness, who did not give his name, reported seeing “horrible things” at the site of the graves.
“I saw three or four child skulls, underwear and women’s clothing. There were insects in some places, which meant there were not just bones there.
“Further on there was a large ravine where people said quite a lot of bodies had been thrown but I wasn’t able to check,” the witness said.
A special commission has been tasked with “identifying the graves” and “determining their scale as well as those responsible for these serious human rights violations,” Defense Minister Alexandre Luba Ntambo said.
Ntambo said there was “no limit” to army action to drive out rebels.
M23 is “a rebel movement, a negative force. . . . I don’t see how someone can stand up and tell us when to stop,” he said.
The renewed fighting — the heaviest since August — has sparked concern from the West, prompting calls for restraint.
“I hope that President (Joseph) Kabila and others in the DRC see this chain of events that have occurred as something that enhances their credibility as a military, but that there are enormous risks in simply moving forward, believing that a military solution is the full answer,” said Russell Feingold, U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“It risks bringing in other forces into this matter that could lead to a cross-national war,” said Feingold, who described the unrest as a “tinderbox.”
Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, part of the Great Lakes region, are all worried by the fighting.
The current battle zone in their volatile neighbor is the Rutshuru region of North Kivu, a province rich in minerals and agricultural produce that has been fought over for more than two decades by a range of armed groups.
Troops from the U.N. peacekeeping mission MONUSCO have a mandate to conduct operations against rebels in the region of Goma, capital of the restive province of North Kivu.
Rwanda’s U.N. ambassador, Eugene Richard Gasana, alleged that 21 shells had fallen on the Rwandan side of the border during the fighting and that two civilians had been killed and 10 wounded.
He said that 15 wounded M23 fighters had crossed into Rwanda and been handed over to the Red Cross and that 1,000 refugees had fled the fighting.
“Rwanda will be forced to take action if Rwandan lives continue to be jeopardized,” he warned, adding that his country will “not tolerate for much longer violations of its territorial integrity,” according to diplomats who were at the briefing.