Rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo took control Tuesday of the city of Goma, including its airport and the border with Rwanda, after days of clashes, a Congolese reporter on the ground said.
The M23 rebel group, which has been engaged in heavy fighting with Congolese army forces, has also taken control of the government radio station, said the reporter, who can’t be named for security purposes.
M23 rebels were seen walking through town and entering government and police buildings, he said.
Groups of fighters talked to local people as they emerged from their places of hiding when the clashes stopped. Many residents had spent hours hunkered down in their homes, listening to the small arms and heavy artillery fire from several directions.
A group of the rebels continued to fight with government soldiers as they fled west of Goma.
MONUSCO, the U.N. peacekeeping force, is still present in Goma and has largely kept out of the fighting in recent hours.
Local radio stations, often the main source of information, had gone off the air as of Tuesday morning.
The noise of heavy shelling and gunfire echoed through the previous night in Goma after a 24-hour deadline given by M23 to negotiate expired. Local independent radio stations reported that the Congolese government refused to meet the deadline.
The conflict spread over the border Tuesday when several shells hit Rwanda, killing two and injuring several others, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwa said in an interview with CNN.
“We have had to be very restrained in this latest flare-up,” she said.
Several high-ranking government officials have fled Goma for nearby Bukavu, in South Kivu, U.N. officials and a senior NGO official said earlier Tuesday.
The local Goma government could not be reached for comment. Nor could MONUSCO, which is mandated to protect civilians in Goma.
The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been embroiled in violence since 1994, when Hutu forces crossed the border fearing reprisals following the genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Soldiers from the M23 group were part of the national army as part of peace negotiations brokered in 2009. They broke away from the Congolese army in April, complaining about a lack of pay and poor conditions.
One of its commanders, Bosco Ntaganda, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including recruiting child soldiers.
The United Nations and some donor countries have accused neighboring Rwanda of backing the M23 rebel group by providing it with arms, support and even soldiers.
It is an allegation that Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, has repeatedly denied.
“As far as Rwanda is concerned, we have moved way past these accusations of our involvement,” Mushikiwa said. “We need to talk solutions of how to get out of this situation.”
She added that Rwanda would not engage in any talks with M23. “Our interlocutor is the government of the DRC,” she said.
Security analysts say the rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has dangerous regional implications, and the international community has expressed alarm at the M23 advances.
Mushikiwa said that Rwanda would close the border crossing if asked to by the Congolese government, but that such a move could have humanitarian consequences.
Tens of thousands of Congolese, already displaced by previous rounds of fighting in the volatile region, have fled camps around the edges of Goma, according to UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders.