GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels seized control of two major towns in eastern Congo and doubled the territory they hold after fierce fighting Saturday with the Congolese military, authorities said.
Congo’s government later ordered the Rwandan ambassador, Vincent Karega, to leave the country within 48 hours, reacting to M23 rebels seizing both Kiwanja and Rutshuru Centre near their shared border.
Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the rebels, an allegation Rwanda has repeatedly denied. The decision by Congo’s high defense council to expel Karega was expected to further ratchet up tensions between the two countries whose relations have been fraught for decades.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO, meanwhile, said four of its peacekeepers were wounded in Kiwanja on Saturday warning it would “retaliate vigorously” if there were “further aggression against its bases.”
Fierce fighting erupted Saturday morning between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Kiwanja, which is 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the regional capital, Goma.
John Banyene, president of the local civil society, later told The Associated Press that the rebels now controlled both Kiwanja and Rutshuru Centre.
“As we speak, we confirm that the M23 rebels and their allies control the town of Kiwanja, but the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are not giving up,” Banyene told journalists in Goma.
Daniel Subuka, a Kiwanja resident contacted by telephone by AP, said he saw well-armed M23 rebels making their way into Kiwanja and others heading toward Rutshuru Centre.
There was no immediate confirmation from Congolese authorities or the military on the reported seizure of the two towns.
However, the U.N. peacekeeping mission put out a statement saying it “strongly condemns the hostile actions of the M23 and their serious consequences on the civilian population.”
MONUSCO “warns that it stands ready to retaliate vigorously in the event of further aggression against its bases,” the statement said, detailing that two of the wounded peacekeepers had been hit by mortar fire.
The M23 rose to prominence more than a decade ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in Congo’s east, which sits along the border with Rwanda. After a peace deal, many of M23′s fighters were integrated into the national military.