GOMA, DR Congo, May 13 – Scores of residents fled heavy fighting between government forces and army mutineers in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, a local source told AFP.
Disgruntled troops have fought for weeks under rebel leader General Bosco Ntaganda — known as the “Terminator” and wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague — or as part of breakaway militias.
The mutineers are one-time rebels who were integrated into the national army under a 2009 peace deal but defected again after long complaining of a lack of pay, poor food and difficulties in winning promotions.
The fighting has rocked areas in and around Virunga national park, on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, a habitat famed for its mountain gorillas.
More than 10,000 people have fled to Rwanda and Uganda.
On Saturday, government forces carried out air strikes against Runyonyi, a town near the Rwandan border which is held by the mutineers, the army said.
A representative of a local civil society group told AFP Sunday that “there has been heavy weapon firing this morning in Runyonyi. People are fleeing the hills around Runyonyi and heading for Jomba and Tchengerero.”
A spokesman for one breakaway group, the March 23 movement (M23), said civilians were also fleeing the Bunagana region, some crossing into Uganda.
“Massive population displacement is taking place because of fear of fighting,” Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarana said.
He said loyalist forces Saturday attacked the mutineers with tanks and fighter planes, but “unfortunately for them, we put up a good defence”.
“We repelled government forces in Runyonyi, Bukima, Bikenge… Loyalist forces bombed places when we weren’t even there, they bombed the local population.”
The M23 is demanding full implementation of March 2009 peace accords which allowed former rebels of Ntaganda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) to be incorporated into the army.
In April, more than a dozen senior officers from the former CNDP mutinied along with several hundred men in the north and south Kivu regions.
The CNDP offered Sunday to broker talks between the Congolese government and the various mutineers.
“Instead of things getting worse and worse, we can offer mediation” because the mutineers are ex-CNDP and they “listen to us, we have influence on them,” CNDP spokesman Antoine Mahamba Kasiwa told AFP.
Ntaganda is wanted by the ICC on a war crimes charge of enlisting child soldiers, but Kinshasa had refused to hand him over, saying he was needed to keep the peace pact.
Loyalist forces believe Ntaganda and a small group of his men have taken refuge in Virunga national park, where a ranger and two soldiers were killed when they came under machine-gun fire from some 100 unidentified men.
Meanwhile, defence ministers from Rwanda and the DR Congo met Saturday in the border area of Gisenyi for security talks focussing on the ongoing clashes and refugee crisis.
“Rwanda is committed to assisting the Democratic Republic of Congo (in) finding a peaceful and political solution to the ongoing crisis without the use of military force,” Rwandan army spokesman Joseph Nzamwita said Sunday.
The two countries intend to exchange intelligence and assess security threats along their common border.