GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congolese soldiers supported by U.N. forces fought rebels in the country's volatile east for hours Saturday, officials said, while a rocket landed inside the town of Goma and killed three people as border tensions escalated between Rwanda and Congo.
Scores of angry residents took to the streets of Goma in protest following several days of violence that has left at least seven dead and dozens wounded in this city of nearly a million people near the Congo-Rwanda border.
Congo immediately blamed the rocket attack on neighboring Rwanda, which has long been accused of supporting the eastern Congolese rebel movement known as M23.
"We wonder, for how long will the international community continue to tolerate these offenses?" Lambert Mende, a spokesman for the Congolese government, told The Associated Press.
Rwanda, which has vigorously denied allegations by the United Nations and others that it has provided support to the M23 rebels fighting the Congolese government, also accused Congolese forces of attacking Rwanda. The Rwandan army said mortar fire landed in several villages along the border on Friday.
Brig. Joseph Nzabamwita, a spokesman for Rwanda's military, said "acts of provocation that endanger the lives of Rwandan citizens will not remain unanswered indefinitely."
The M23 rebel group briefly took Goma last November and subsequent peace talks in neighboring Uganda have repeatedly stalled. M23's leaders previously headed other rebel groups in the region that were backed by Rwanda. The rebel group is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009.
Congolese officials and the U.N. confirmed on Friday that the new U.N. intervention brigade had shelled rebel positions on Thursday for the first time since the force was created in March.
Congolese army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli said that the fighting resumed around 5 a.m. Saturday and continued for at least seven hours.
The commander of MONUSCO, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo, said the mission was "completely engaged alongside the government army" and that a South African peacekeeper had been seriously wounded in the latest fighting.
New mission chief Martin Kobler, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative in Congo, told journalists Friday that the U.N. brigade will protect Goma. He said the U.N.'s objective in recent heavy fighting outside Goma was "to defend the town but also to eliminate the M23's positions."
A U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the U.N. operation have not been made public, had said that Thursday's mission was a defensive operation to protect civilians and U.N. bases — not an offensive operation.
The intervention brigade, consisting of Tanzanian, South African and Malawian soldiers, was created by the U.N. Security Council in March and has deployed to Congo over the past few months, reinforcing 17,000 U.N. blue helmets already with MONUSCO. The brigade has a stronger mandate than past U.N. peacekeeping missions and is authorized to fight the rebel forces operating in eastern Congo.
There has been widespread skepticism in Congo that the intervention brigade will be a game-changing addition to the existing U.N. force, which stood by when M23 fighters briefly captured Goma late last year.
Main roads through Goma were blocked early Saturday by burning tires and crowds chanting anti-MONUSCO slogans.
Kobler, the U.N. mission chief, called on Goma residents to protect his staff after angry crowds tried to march on the mission headquarters there.
He said he understood people's impatience to see an end to rocket attacks "but the U.N. are not the enemy."
Mineral-rich eastern Congo has been destabilized by a myriad of armed groups since the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 genocide when Hutu extremists blamed for the bloodshed fled to Congo.
Mwanamilongo reported from Kinshasa, Congo. Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.