GOMA, Congo | A Rwandan-backed rebel group advanced to within two miles of Goma, a provincial capital in eastern Congo, marking the first time rebels have come so close since 2008.
Congolese army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli said the fighting had been going on since 6 a.m. Sunday and that the front line has moved to just a few miles outside the city.
After more than nine hours of violent clashes, the two sides took a break, with M23 rebels establishing a checkpoint just 100 yards from one held by the military in the village of Munigi, exactly 1.8 miles outside the Goma city line.
Contacted by telephone on the front line, M23 rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama said the group will spend the night in Goma.
"We are about to take the town. We will spend the night in Goma tonight," said Col. Kazarama.
"We are confident that we can take Goma and then our next step will be to take Bukavu," he said, mentioning the capital of the next province to the south.
The M23 rebel group is made up of soldiers from a now-defunct rebel army, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a group made up primarily of fighters from the Tutsi ethnic group, the ethnicity targeted in Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon vowed Sunday that U.N. peacekeepers "will remain present in Goma and will continue all efforts to robustly implement its mandate … with regard to the protection of civilians."
The United Nations has about 6,700 troops in Nord Kivu province, about 1,500 of them in Goma, backing government forces against the M23 rebels. U.N. attack helicopters have staged cannon and rocket strikes against the rebels, but have not been able to stop the steady advance.
Mr. Ban also warned "that any actions to undermine or target [the U.N. mission] will not be tolerated," according to a statement released by his office.
In 2008, the CNDP, led by Rwandan commando Gen. Laurent Nkunda, marched to the doorstep of Goma, abruptly stopping just before taking the city.
In the negotiations that followed and culminated in a March 23, 2009, peace deal, the CNDP agreed to disband, and their fighters joined the national army of Congo. They did not pick up their arms again until this spring, when hundreds of ex-CNDP fighters defected from the army in April, claiming the Congolese government had failed to uphold its end of the 2009 agreement.
Reports, including one by the U.N. Group of Experts, have shown that M23 is being backed by Rwanda and that the new rebellion is likely linked to the fight to control Congo's mineral wealth.
The latest fighting broke out Thursday and led to the deaths of 151 rebels and two soldiers. On Saturday, U.N. attack helicopters targeted M23 positions in eastern Congo.
Also on Saturday, Mr. Ban called Rwandan President Paul Kagame "to request that he use his influence on the M23 to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack," according to peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, who spoke at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
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.
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