GOMA, Congo (AP) — A Rwandan-backed rebel group advanced to within 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) of Goma, a crucial provincial capital in eastern Congo, marking the first time that rebels have come this close since 2008.
Congolese army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli said the fighting has been going on since 6 a.m. Sunday and the frontline has moved to just a few kilometers (miles) outside the city. Contacted by telephone on the frontline, M23 rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama said the group will spend the night in Goma.
As the rebels moved in, the governor of North Kivu province, which Goma is the capital of, said he had been evacuated to the city of Bukavu.
The M23 rebel group is made-up of soldiers from a now-defunct rebel army the National Congress for the Defense of the People, known as the CNDP, which agreed to be integrated into the country's armed forces following a March 23, 2009 peace deal. That rebel group had been led by a Rwandan commando, Gen. Laurent Nkunda, who marched his soldiers to the doorstep of Goma in 2008, abruptly stopping his advance just before taking the city.
Starting in April of this year, the members of M23 began defecting from the regular army, claiming that the terms of the 2009 peace deal had not been observed. Numerous reports by human rights groups including by the United Nations Group of Experts have shown that M23 is actively being backed by Rwanda and the new rebellion is likely linked to the fight to control Congo's rich mineral wealth.
The latest fighting broke out Thursday, and on Saturday U.N. attack helicopters targeted M23 positions in eastern Congo killing two army officers and 151 rebels.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said Saturday that the rebels were very well-equipped, including with night vision equipment. Also on Saturday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had called Rwandan President Paul Kagame "to request that he use his influence on the M23 to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack," Ladsous said.
North Kivu governor Paluku said Saturday that the Congolese army had earlier retreated from Kibumba, which is 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Goma, after thousands of Rwandans, who he says were backing the rebels, attacked early Saturday.
"Rwandan forces bombarded our positions in Kibumba since early this morning and an estimated 3,500 crossed the border to attack us," he said Saturday.
Reports by United Nations experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda of supporting the rebels. Both countries strongly deny any involvement and Uganda said if the charges continue it will pull its peacekeeping troops out of Somalia, where they are playing an important role in pushing out the Islamist extremist rebels.
The U.N. Security Council called for an immediate stop to the violence following a two-hour, closed-door emergency meeting. The council said it would add sanctions against M23 rebels and demanded that rebels immediately stop their advance toward the provincial capital of Goma.
"We must stop the M23" because Goma's fall "would, inevitably, turn into a humanitarian crisis," said France's UN Ambassador, Gerard Araud. He added that U.N. officials would decide in the coming days which M23 leaders to target for additional sanctions.
Associated Press writer Maria Sanminiatelli at the United Nations contributed to this report.