Mi-24 and Mi-25 attack helicopters operated by the United Nations and the Democratic Republic of Congo have carried out strikes against M23 rebels threatening the city of Goma in the eastern DRC.
Three helicopters from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and two from the Congolese army were seen around the villages of Nkokwe and Bukima on Thursday, AFP reports.
According to a United Nations source, the Mi-24 and Mi-25 helicopters were flown by Ukrainian pilots and strafed targets with cannon fire and rockets. “We made several passes on rebel positions,” the UN official said.
In March this year MONUSCO received four Mi-24 attack helicopters from Ukraine. Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, said that MONUSCO is one of the UN’s most challenging peacekeeping missions, and that the recent shortage of military helicopters had made its work more difficult. “As such, this critical contribution can make a difference in the lives of people in the affected communities,” he said, adding that he cannot “overstate the importance of Ukraine’s contribution.”
Ukraine has also sent a contingent of military personnel to serve in MONUSCO, according to the mission. The UN intensified efforts to secure tactical helicopters for MONUSCO after India expressed its desire to withdraw its own helicopters from the mission.
Rebel advances this month sent the Congolese government army fleeing in droves, displaced thousands of civilians, killed an Indian U.N. peacekeeper and stoked tensions between Congo and Rwanda. Congo accused the Rwandan army of directly equipping and supporting the M23 rebellion.
The M23 rebellion takes its name from a 2009 peace accord the rebels say was violated by Kinshasa. It has been swelled by hundreds of defectors from the Congolese army who walked out into the bush in support of fugitive Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers a decade ago. His co-accused and former boss Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail on Tuesday.
A succession of rebel successes in recent days have once again embarrassed Congo’s ill-disciplined and poorly equipped army and opened the way for a possible assault on the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
However, the rebels said they had no plans to seize the regional capital and only wanted to negotiate with the government in Kinshasa.
The U.N. has a peacekeeping mission of more than 17,000 in the Congo but has often been hard pressed to halt fighting and protect civilians in the vast, unruly central African state which produces gold, copper, tin, diamonds and other minerals.
Yesterday the presidents of Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda threw their weight behind a regional pact to eliminate armed rebels in eastern Congo, signing the document and holding rare face to face talks.
Along with other leaders from the Great Lakes region, Congo’s Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame put their signatures to an accord that foresees the creation of an international military force to take on multiple insurgencies in the eastern Congolese provinces of North and South Kivu.
Uneasy neighbours Congo and Rwanda, which have gone to war with each other in the past, have often swapped accusations about backing rival rebel groups, a charge that both Kigali and Kinshasa deny.
Eastern Congo’s enduring conflict, which has killed, maimed and displaced several million civilians over nearly two decades, has its roots in Tutsi-Hutu ethnic and political enmities dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Later invasions of Congo by Rwandan forces and Kigali’s backing of Congolese rebels fuelled two crippling wars.