A UN brigade tasked with neutralising armed groups in the DRC assisted the government army in clashes with eastern rebels on Monday, ending a brief lull in days of fighting that had killed and wounded dozens.
This assistance saw the first injuries sustained by the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). The UN said three soldiers – two Tanzanians and a South African – were injured on Saturday when a shell landed near their position just north of Goma.
The violence, the most serious in months, is the first major test for the newly deployed UN FIB which has an unprecedented mandate to launch military operations against M23 rebels, one of the many armed groups that have contributed to nearly two decades of conflict.
A senior officer with the brigade said UN peacekeepers were “assisting” the Congolese army in operations against M23 rebels late on Monday.
“We are supporting the army in operations but have not ourselves engaged the rebels at this stage,” the officer said by telephone from Goma, requesting not to be identified.
The brigade fought alongside Congo’s army several times since the latest fighting erupted last Wednesday.
The M23 rebels said they were targeted by air strikes and came under heavy weapons fire on Monday afternoon.
“As usual, we expect ground troops will come in the wake of these bombings,” M23 said in a statement. Congo’s army said rebels had attacked first and it was retaliating.
Congolese army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli said clashes were taking place at Kibati, about 11 km north of Goma, a city of a million people on the Rwandan border.
The rebels briefly seized Goma in November before withdrawing and committing to Ugandan-hosted peace talks. Negotiations faltered and renewed fighting has exacerbated tensions between Rwanda and Congo.
Several shells fell in Rwanda during clashes around Goma last week, prompting Kigali to accuse Kinshasa of bombing it. Congo denied the charge and accused Rwandan troops of backing the rebels.
The cross-border accusations underscore the rebellion’s roots in a complex web of local politics and regional conflicts over ethnicity, land and minerals. Rwandan troops fought in two Congo wars but Kigali says it is not supporting the M23.
A doctor at a military hospital near Goma said he was treating those wounded in “ferocious” fighting on Saturday.
“It is chaotic and difficult to have precise numbers, but we have had around 15 deaths so far. There have also been 150 injuries,” the doctor said, asking not to be named.
The doctor and a UN official said the rebels, whose positions were struck by UN attack helicopters on Saturday, had lost many men in the fighting.
A rebel spokesman denied those reports. “How can we continue to protect our territory while suffering the kinds of losses they are saying? It is nonsense,” spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama said.
At the same time the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the humanitarian and security situation in eastern DRC remained “a major concern”.
“The presence of numerous uncontrolled armed groups is still causing massive displacements of people fleeing hostilities and abuse. As a consequence there is a critical need to protect civilians and to ensure they have access to healthcare, water, food and other basic necessities”, said Alessandra Menegon, head of the ICRC delegation in the DRC.
“Communities in the most unstable areas of eastern DRC live in constant fear. Some are even forced to move away to escape the fighting, threats and looting. ICRC staff remain on the ground, close to the hardest-hit communities. Civilians are suffering many kinds of trauma, both physical and psychological.”
In awareness-raising sessions, ICRC field staff endeavour to persuade members of armed forces and groups to respect civilians. Over the past two months information sessions on international humanitarian law have been held for new battalions of the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
At participatory meetings with communities in Kivu province the ICRC provided information on counselling centres offering psychological help for victims of violence, especially sexual violence. The ICRC supports about 40 such centres in the area.
The ICRC also collects information on violations of international humanitarian law such as sexual violence and child recruitment. It shares information directly and confidentially with the armed forces or groups involved. The aim is to bring about changes in the way weapon bearers behave towards civilians and people not taking part in hostilities.
South Africa is deploying 1 345 soldiers to the DRC, at a cost of more than R400 million, to participate in MONUSCO as part of the Force Intervention Brigade. The South African deployment has been in place since June 13 and is set to end on March 31 next year.
The FIB is the first UN peacekeeping force to ever be given an offensive mandate. It is under the command of Tanzanian Brigadier James Mwakibolwa and the more than 3 000 strong brigade is made up of soldiers from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania. Indications are it will be fully operational by next month to start execution of its offensive operations mandate.
Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party MP David Maynier has said he will ask Parliament to explain whether SANDF troops are prepared for the DRC, given the death of 13 soldiers in the Central African Republic on 23 March.
“The SANDF’s mission is peace enforcement, rather than peacekeeping, and there is not only a high risk of casualties, but also of being drawn into a regional war with countries, such as Rwanda, who are allegedly supporting rebel groups, such as the M23, in the eastern DRC,” Maynier said.
“We must be sure that the SANDF [troops] are properly equipped to execute the task assigned to them by the United Nations.”