Congolese rebels and government forces traded heavy weapons fire around two eastern villages forcing thousands of civilians to flee towards the provincial capital days ahead of a regional summit due to tackle the rebellion.
The clashes took place around Kibumba and Rugari and U.N. helicopter gunships were seen headed towards the frontline, but Reuters reporters said there was no sign of an imminent move on Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, some 25 km (15 miles) to the south.
A rebellion launched in April has already forced some 260,000 people to flee their homes. U.N. experts have said neighbouring Rwanda is backing the rebels, prompting the United States, a key ally of Kigali’s, to cut some military aid, Reuters reports.
Rwanda denies it is supporting the rebels.
“We were in our house and we heard gunfire and then saw the soldiers running. When we saw the soldiers running, we also fled as we were scared,” Isidore Kambale, a resident of Rugari, told Reuters as he took to the the main road south.
A Reuters reporter on the road between Goma and Kibumba said he heard heavy weapons fire in the early afternoon and saw thousands of people, mostly women laden with bags on their heads, headed towards the provincial capital.
Three U.N. gunships flew earlier in the direction of the fighting but it was not clear if they took part in the clashes.
U.N. peacekeepers have previously fired on rebel positions in support of government troops. They have also reinforced positions around Goma in a bid to make sure the rebels, known as the M23, cannot threaten the town.
Colonel Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for the M23, blamed the army for the firing: “From our side, we’re calm. Nothing to report.” Congo’s army was not immediately available for comment.
The new rebellion has led to an escalation in tensions between Congo and Rwanda after three years of generally improved relations following years of conflict between the neighbours.
Leaders from Africa’s Great Lakes region plan to send a “neutral force” to Congo to end cycles of violence though no details have yet emerged on where the troops will come from or when they will be deployed.
Uganda, another neighbour of Congo’s, said on Tuesday it would host a summit in early August to discuss the crisis.
“We’ll be discussing a range of ideas aimed at finding a solution to the crisis including a temporary ceasefire and a stationing a permanent international stabilisation force along DRC’s border with Rwanda,” said Asuman Kiyingi, Uganda’s acting foreign minister.
The M23 rebel movement is mostly made up of fighters from a former rebellion that Rwanda was also accused of supporting before a peace deal was signed and they were integrated into Congo’s army.
Local Congolese government officials have accused Rwanda of invading North Kivu.
The United States has announced a cut in military aid to Kigali this year as a result of the reported support for rebels but Rwanda has said the decision was taken on the back of incorrect information.