On Thursday, the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) issued a statement saying it would take “necessary steps to protect civilians.”
MONUSCO head Martin Kobler issued the statement in response to a Thursday shelling of a civilian area in the city, where at least two people were killed and five others injured.
“I have ordered the MONUSCO Force to react and to take necessary action to protect civilians and prevent an advance by the M23,” he said.
Late on Wednesday, fighting between M23 rebels and the Congolese army broke out in Goma, the main city in the eastern Congo, after a relative lull in the 18-month mutiny.
MONUSCO has 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo — the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world.
The M23 rejected the central government’s accusations that the rebels were behind Thursday’s shelling, and claimed that the army shelled the populated areas of the city.
“We want the (Congolese army) removed from Goma and for it to be protected by the neutral forces of MONUSCO and the police. We have no intention of entering Goma,” M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha said. “We are waiting for negotiations to start.”
Earlier this month, M23 rebels said they could recapture Goma if the government in Kinshasa would not meet its international commitments.
The M23 rebels seized Goma on November 20, 2012 after UN peacekeepers gave up the battle for the frontier city. The rebels withdrew from the city on December 1, 2012 under a ceasefire accord.
During a November 24 summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), an 11-member regional bloc, the Congolese government pledged to start peace talks with M23 rebels.
The talks between Kinshasa and the M23 began in December 2012 but broke down in April 2013.
“If the government does not comply with the (November 24) declaration of ICGLR heads of state, this allows us to alter our deployment and move positions back to Goma,” M23 president Bertrand Bisimwa said on August 3 in Bunagana, a town on the border with Uganda.
The ICGLR summit called on the M23 to withdraw to positions about 20 kilometers out of Goma. The rebels withdrew from the city.
“We stuck to the positions we were assigned by the ICGLR. The Goma withdrawal happened,” he stated.
“Yet the deployment of an M23 battalion at Goma airport never happened, nor did the city’s demilitarization,” said Bisimwa, adding, “We’ve held our part of the deal, we want the government to hold theirs.”
The M23 rebels defected from the Congolese army in April 2012 in protest over alleged mistreatment in the army.
The M23 rebels and several other armed groups are active in the eastern Congo and are fighting for control of the country’s vast mineral resources, such as gold, the main tin ore cassiterite, and coltan (columbite-tantalite), which is used to make many electronic devices, including cell phones.
Since early May 2012, nearly three million people have fled their homes in the eastern Congo. About 2.5 million have resettled in Congo, but about 500,000 have crossed into neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.
Congo has faced numerous problems over the past few decades, such as grinding poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and a war in the east of the country that has dragged on since 1998 and left over 5.5 million people dead.