KINSHASA, Jul 6 – A UN peacekeeper from India was killed in clashes between renegade soldiers and DR Congo troops on the border with Uganda, the United Nations said Friday as the mutineers took a key border post.
The UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) said the Indian soldier was fatally wounded by shrapnel during the fighting.
“It wasn’t a direct hit. He died from his wounds,” MONUSCO spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai told AFP.
The DR Congo’s army (FARDC) launched an offensive Thursday to rout mutinous armed troops in a force known as the March 23 Movement (M23) near the Virunga national park.
But M23 repulsed loyalist forces and the mutineers took the border town of Bunagana around 6:00 am (0400 GMT), M23 Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama told AFP.
“The mutineers took control of the entire town. The entire population and the (Congolese) troops are in Uganda,” a police source in the area told AFP separately.
A Bunagana resident said, “It’s over, the place has been occupied by the rebels. We’re all crammed in on the Ugandan side.”
Kazarama said Bunagana was being evacuated. “M23 police will stay there,” he added.
Bunagana is about 10 kilometres (six miles) north of other positions of mutineers who have gathered in the hills in the southeast of Virunga national park since May.
The park, which is home to one of the biggest populations of rare mountain gorillas, borders Uganda and Rwanda about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Nord-Kivu province’s main town of Goma.
Ugandan army spokesman Peter Mugisha said that some 600 FARDC soldiers had fled across the border into Uganda after the attack by the mutineers.
“They crossed over early this morning and are now under our control after we disarmed them,” Mugisha told AFP, adding “we are deciding what to do with them”.
About 5,000 civilians have fled into Uganda since Thursday’s fighting started, according to the UN refugee agency, whose local representative Sakura Atsumi told AFP there was “a constant flow of new arrivals”.
The latest development came after renewed clashes in the two-month-old conflict between the government troops and rebel soldiers in the jungles in the east of the vast central African country.
Fighting in the resource-rich region has pitted government troops against former Congolese Tutsi rebels, who were integrated into the army in 2009 but defected earlier this year and formed the rebel M23 movement in May.
The rebels, holed up in Nord-Kivu province near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda, are led by Bosco Ntaganda, a warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes.
The rebels say they mutinied because of poor conditions in the army and demand full implementation of peace accords signed on March 23, 2009.
The Congolese troops, newly reinforced with commando units, launched the offensive against M23 in the hills south of Virunga, mutineers said.
The 7,800-square-kilometre (3,011-square-mile) national park, created in 1925, is the oldest in Africa and was classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The ongoing violence has displaced more than 200,000 people and driven 20,000 refugees into Rwanda and Uganda.
Rwanda has denied accusations it is supporting the Tutsi rebels to combat the ethnic Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila on June 30 blamed “dark national and foreign forces” for the violent unrest but did not name Rwanda.
Rwanda twice sent troops into DR Congo to hunt down Rwandan Hutu rebels. Kigali has also been accused of exploiting its neighbour’s mineral wealth.
The group Global Witness, which tracks links between conflict and natural resources worldwide, has said M23 leader Ntaganda and other senior figures of the movement “amassed huge sums of money through the trade in conflict minerals”.
In earlier clashes, the M23 claimed to have taken Jomba and Chengerero, which are located on the road to the border crossing with Uganda.