M23 rebels conduct training exercises in Rumangabo, eastern Congo. The Rwandan-backed rebel group advanced to within 2.4 miles of Goma, a crucial provincial capital in eastern Congo, marking the first time that rebels have come this close since 2008.
KAMPALA, Uganda — Fighting inched perilously close to one of Congo’s largest cities on Sunday, and U.N. forces turned to heavy aerial bombardments to stop a rebel advance that broke into a sprint over the weekend, according to witnesses and officials of Congo’s army.
The rebels, members of the March 23 Movement, or M23, have advanced 18 miles along eastern Congo’s principal road since Saturday, capturing villages and beating back a seemingly broken Congolese army. They are now only a few miles now away from Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, which is home to nearly 1 million people and U.N. peacekeepers who have a mandate to use force to protect civilians.
It is the heaviest fighting in eastern Congo since Goma faced a similar rebel offensive in 2008.
“We are losing,” said Col. Olivier Hamuli, a spokesman for the Congolese army.
The fighting had waned by early Sunday evening, and a spokesman for the rebels said they would not attack the city or the airport.
“We’re just doing this to break the capacity” of Congo’s army, said the rebel spokesman, Col. Vianney Kazarama, according to a Reuters report.
Officials from the U.N. mission in Congo could not be reached for comment.
The M23 group is made up of soldiers from a former rebel army that signed a peace deal with the government on March 23, 2009, and was then integrated into Congo’s national army. But this spring, hundreds of them staged a mutiny, claiming that the government had failed to meet their demands under the 2009 agreement.
The figurehead of the group is believed to be Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel and high-ranking army officer wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer charges that he committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It broke out as Congo and foreign governments called for the arrest of Ntaganda. Since then, Rwanda and Uganda have been accused by a U.N. panel of experts of aiding the rebel movement, a charge that both countries deny.
A new wave of fighting erupted last week, with the army claiming to have killed more than 150 rebels and the rebels capturing the town of Kibumba, about 18 miles from Goma.
The forces of the U.N. mission in Congo bombed rebel positions on Saturday and Sunday, but that did not seem to blunt the rebels’ advance.
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