Fighting erupted near the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo Tuesday, residents and local officials said, a day after neighboring Rwanda accused the Congolese army of shelling its territory.
Details of the unrest remain unclear, but several residents of the area around the dormant volcano of Mikeno, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Goma, said they heard heavy weapons fire in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
“A position of the Congolese armed forces was attacked,” said local civil society group leader Olivier Nzabonimpa, adding that the attack had pushed villagers to flee to Goma or across the border to Rwanda.
Boniface Kagumyo, the mayor of a nearby commune, blamed the attack on the M23 rebel group.
The M23 militia emerged out of a 2013 ethnic Tutsi Congolese rebellion that was supported by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda at the time.
M23 resumed fighting earlier this year, accusing DR Congo’s government of having failed to respect a 2009 agreement under which its fighters were to be incorporated into the army.
Many in DR Congo suspect that Rwanda continues to back the group.
A senior Congolese military officer in the region, who declined to be named, told AFP that the fighting on Tuesday had claimed the lives of nine Congolese soldiers as well as 22 on the enemy side.
“We fiercely repelled the enemy’s attack, they fled towards the border to their homes,” the officer said, adding that his forces had seized Rwandan army uniforms and arms.
AFP was unable to independently confirm the information.
The fighting north of Goma comes a day after Rwanda’s army said rocket shelling from Congolese armed forces had struck areas inside Rwandan territory, injuring civilians, and called for an investigation into the incident.
The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country of 90 million people, has yet to respond to the statement.
Since the mass arrival in the vast central African nation of Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, relations between the two countries have been strained.
DR Congo has regularly accused Rwanda of carrying out incursions into its territory and of backing armed groups there.
On Sunday, the United Nations accused M23 of deliberately targeting peacekeepers in the country’s troubled east.
“Our mission remains ready to use all necessary means within the scope of its mandate to support Congolese efforts aimed at neutralizing armed groups and protecting civilians, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told a press briefing on Tuesday.
African Union Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat on Monday also called on the M23 group to cease all hostilities and to lay down its arms.
Such a move would accord with the spirit of the Nairobi process, he added, referring to a peace initiative designed to curb more than a quarter of a century of violence in eastern DR Congo.
A first round of talks between DR Congo’s government and several rebel groups was held in Kenya’s capital Nairobi in April.
But the DR Congo government has managed to push some of the M23 rebels out of the talks, after accusing them of restarting hostilities.