KINSHASA (Reuters) - Rebels in Congo were on the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma on Sunday after pushing back U.N. peacekeepers and government troops, but a spokesman said they did not plan to take the city.
In four days of battles, the rebels have advanced closer than at any time in their eight-month-old uprising to Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu and home to the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo.
Colonel Vianney Kazarama, spokesman for the M23 rebels, said rebel fighters had advanced to within 2 km (1 mile) of Goma.
“We’re not going to take the airport, we are responding to an attack by the army... We’re just doing this to break the capacity of the FARDC (Congolese army),” Kazarama said.
He said the rebels would hold their position around 5 km outside the city and that fighting had stopped for the day.
“The situation remains under control,” he said in a text message.
Earlier, Colonel Olivier Hamuli, a spokesman for the Congolese army, spoke to Reuters briefly by telephone before the line was cut. “There is combat about 5 km from the airport,” he said.
The United Nations has about 6,700 peacekeeping forces in North Kivu, with some 1,400 troops in Goma and the surrounding area. The force has a mandate to protect civilians.
More than three-quarters of a million people have fled their homes since the latest fighting in eastern Congo erupted in April when a group of soldiers mutinied to form the M23 group.
The rebels accused Kinshasa of failing to respect a 2009 peace deal which ended a previous rebellion in North Kivu and integrated insurgents into the national army.
Tariq Riebl, humanitarian program co-ordinator for Oxfam aid agency said residents were trying to evacuate their families from Goma while trucks full of Congolese soldiers were seen leaving the city on Sunday.
“People are moving around the city. I do know a lot of people are sending their families out if they have the financial means to do that,” Riebl said.
He said thousands of displaced people were also abandoning camps in the north of the city to avoid the advancing rebels.
“We are expecting 50,000 people moving today, and when the dust settles tomorrow, we’ll just have to see where those people are located,” he said.
“The question now is, what does this (fighting) mean? Are M23 going to take Goma, nobody knows,” he said.
On Saturday, U.N. helicopters strafed rebel positions, but insurgents have continued to gain ground.
Rebels on Sunday said they were responding to an early morning assault by government forces. No casualty figures were given by either side.
Goma, on the Rwandan border, is home to up to a million people, including hundreds of thousands displaced by conflict. M23 rebels have repeatedly said they do not intend to capture the city.
Congo’s government and U.N. investigators have accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels in eastern Congo.
While Rwanda’s army has repeatedly sent soldiers into Congo during nearly two decades of conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region, the Rwandan government has strongly denied supporting the M23 in the latest rebellion.
The U.N.’s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters on Saturday that the M23 rebels had sophisticated equipment, including night vision capacity and 120 mm mortars.
More than 5 million people are estimated to have died from violence, hunger and disease in wars in Congo since 1998, which would make it the deadliest conflict since World War Two.
Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Janet Lawrence