GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - The head of the U.N. mission in Congo on Thursday ordered peacekeeping troops to act to protect civilians after shelling hit the city of Goma in renewed fighting between the army and M23 rebels.
The fighting close to Goma, a city of a million people on the Rwandan border, comes after a relative lull in the 18-month rebellion. Late last month, the United Nations pledged to keep the M23 rebels out of range of the town, which they briefly seized last year.
Rwanda, which has long had strained relations with its neighbor, accused the Congolese army of deliberately firing artillery into its territory. Kinshasa denied the reports and repeated its accusation that Rwanda backs M23. Rwanda denies it.
Martin Kobler, head of the U.N. mission known as MONUSCO, said populated areas and U.N. positions had been directly attacked during the clashes on Thursday.
“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, without elaborating.
A Reuters reporter in Goma said three shells landed in the town and saw the bodies of two children killed in one of the explosions. Another civilian was killed and four others wounded, officials at a local hospital said. Two Congolese soldiers were also wounded, they said.
Fighting initially broke out late on Wednesday.
A senior U.N. official, who asked not to be named, said that on Thursday the rebels entered a security zone surrounding Goma, which was established by a new, robustly-mandated U.N. Intervention Brigade earlier this month.
The official said M23 had fired the shells that fell on Goma and across the border in Rwanda.
Rwanda’s defence ministry acknowledged a rocket had hit the Rwandan border village of Buga but blamed it on the Congolese army, calling it “completely unprovoked and senseless”.
No casualties were reported in Rwanda, but the ministry said the explosion had damaged property.
The rebels rejected accusations they were behind Thursday’s shelling, saying it was done by Congolese soldiers in an attempt to draw peacekeepers and Rwandan troops into the fight.
“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.”
The M23 rebels began taking large swathes of Congo’s volatile east early last year, accusing the central government of failing to honor a previous peace deal.
They dealt a serious blow to the image of MONUSCO - at 17,000 troops the world’s largest U.N. mission - last November by marching past U.N. soldiers to briefly seize Goma.
They withdrew under a deal that called for peace negotiations between the rebels and Congolese government representatives. However the talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala have made little headway.
The 3,000-member U.N. Intervention Brigade - made up of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops - was established in the wake of Goma’s seizure by M23 and is tasked with fighting and disarming rebel groups in Congo’s volatile east.
MONUSCO said last month the new security zone established by the Intervention Brigade would keep Goma beyond the range of M23 and said the city would not come under attack again.
Reporting by Kenny Katombe; Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa and Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by David Lewis and Andrew Roche