Rebels capture the strategic town after days of fierce fighting, drawing condemnation from the UN.
M23 rebels have captured the strategic town of Kitshanga in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after days of fierce fighting, drawing condemnation from the UN.
The DRC army on Friday confirmed the withdrawal of its forces, calling it a tactical move to protect civilians from a new offensive by rebel fighters.
“We withdrew tactically from the city in order to draw these genocidal forces deep into the city and avoid the worst for our people in Kitshanga,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Ndjike, spokesman for the military governor of the North. -Kivu.
“We are doing everything we can to dislodge this enemy,” he told AFP news agency.
The rebels took control of Kitshanga on Thursday evening after capturing several villages on the road linking the town of around 60,000 people to the provincial capital of Goma, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) away.
Videos on social media appeared to show fighters from the M23 group celebrating and claiming to have captured the town. Al Jazeera could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos.
M23 political spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka in a statement on Thursday accused government troops of attacking civilians in Kitchanga and elsewhere, and said the rebel group was «forced to intervene and stop a another genocide».
«We just went through the war in Kitchanga, we saw the M23 kill people, we were scared, that’s why we fled so as not to die too,» Angelique Mukeshimana told the Associated news agency. Press. The mother-of-four traveled to a makeshift displacement site on the outskirts of Goma.
“For months the M23 have been moving towards Kitshanga and Masisi as they fight the Congolese army, which is believed to be largely supported by militias. Although Congo has denied it,” Al Jazeera’s Malcom Webb said in a report from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
“Sources within the Congolese army said that two days ago a battalion of soldiers crossed from Rwanda to reinforce the M23. This helped the rebels take control of Kitshanga. And that means the M23 now controls the road from Kitshanga to Goma.
UN calls for cessation of hostilities
The UN peacekeeping mission, known by its acronym MONUSCO, said more than 500 people, including women and children, are seeking refuge at its base in the town of Kitshanga.
MONUSCO spokesman Ndeye Khady Lo said civilians fleeing Kitchanga had been provided with tents, food, water and first aid.
«M23 must cease all hostilities and withdraw from occupied areas,» Lo told the AP.
Months of escalating fighting has displaced at least 450,000 people.
Regional leaders agreed in November that M23 fighters would withdraw from eastern parts of the DRC, but the M23 has been accused of violating the terms of the ceasefire.
Goma, home to more than a million people and located just on the Rwandan border, was already cut off from the north after the rebels took National Road 2 during their offensive in October and November.
The M23, which Kinshasa says is backed by Rwanda, took up arms in late 2021 and has since seized parts of Rutshuru and Nyiragongo, north of Goma. United Nations and European Union experts have accused Rwanda of supporting the M23.
Rwanda has denied supporting the group, which is one of dozens operating in mineral-rich eastern Congo.
Under diplomatic pressure and under the supervision of a regional force deployed in the region, the rebels announced their withdrawal in December and January from two captured areas.
The fighting took place days before Pope Francis was due in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, for a three-day visit. The trip was originally supposed to include a stopover in the east, but the Vatican scrapped it amid mounting violence.