KINSHASA The Congolese army clashed with rebel fighters near the eastern city of Goma for a second day on Tuesday, threatening an uneasy six-month peace in the region ahead of a scheduled visit by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week.
Government forces and the M23 insurgents exchanged heavy weapons fire from early on Tuesday, with both sides reporting an unspecified number of dead and accusing the other of starting the clashes.
"The M23 tried to overrun our positions and we're in the process of pushing them back," army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli told Reuters. "We're very confident (of defending Goma)".
The fighting marked the first combat since November, when M23 troops routed Democratic Republic of Congo's army - known as FARDC - and briefly seized Goma, despite the presence of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers.
M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha said the rebels had come under heavy army shelling for a second day and the group's military commander, Sultani Makenga, had given the order to respond.
"It seems the government wants to fight," he said. "There is no political will for bringing peace through a negotiated settlement".
Peace talks between the M23 and the Congolese government in the Kampala, the capital of neighbouring Uganda, have stalled.
During its year-long insurgency, M23 has repeatedly used alleged army aggression as a pretext to launch offensives.
Last year, U.N. experts accused Rwanda of sending troops and weapons across the border to support the rebels. Rwanda denies the accusation.
In recent months, the M23 has been weakened by in-fighting and defections. The Congolese army is also struggling to re-organise after its humiliating defeat in Goma last year.
The United Nations is deploying around 3,000 troops as part of an Intervention Brigade to bolster its 17,000 strong peacekeeping mission. The brigade has a mandate to neutralise armed groups in eastern Congo, including M23.
Ban is due to arrive in Goma this week with the president of the World Bank as part of a high-profile visit to push for an end to nearly two decades of violence in the mineral-rich region which has left millions dead.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alison Williams)