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North Kivu Gov. Julien Paluku said Saturday that the Congolese army earlier had retreated from Kibumba, which is 18 miles north of Goma, after thousands of Rwandans, who he says were backing the rebels, attacked early Saturday.

“Rwandan forces bombarded our positions in Kibumba since early this morning, and an estimated 3,500 crossed the border to attack us,” Mr. Paluku said Saturday.

In downtown Goma, panicked residents had come out to try to get more information on what was happening. A 45-year-old mother of five said that she has nowhere to go.

“I don’t really know what is happening, I’ve seen soldiers and tanks in the streets, and that scares me,” said Imaculee Kahindo. Asked if she planned to leave the city, she said: “What can we do? I will probably hide in my house with my children.”

Col. Hamuli, the spokesman for the Congolese army, denied reports that soldiers were fleeing.

In 2008 as Gen. Nkunda’s CNDP rebels amassed at the gates of Goma, reporters inside the city were able to see Congolese soldiers running in the opposite direction after having abandoned their posts. The Congolese army is notoriously dysfunctional, with soldiers paid only small amounts, making it difficult to secure their loyalties during heavy fighting.