Monday 2 September 2013

SANDF in Congo advance

Stephan Hofstatter & James Oatway, The Times

Congolese troops consolidated their positions 3km from the M23 rebel stronghold of Kibumba, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, last night in preparation for a fresh assault on the rebels.

A field commander yesterday told The Times at the front line, 20km north of Goma and 2km from the Rwandan border, that the rebels' forward position was on a low hill 600m away on the approach to Kibumba. Sporadic shelling could be heard.

"They have a company dug in there and the M23 still occupies Kibumba," said the commander, who cannot be named. "At the Rwandan border they have one tank and 82mm mortars but they are not firing on us. We're not sure why."

Another officer in the camp, whose soldiers were armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns, said his men were poised for the next attack.

"Once we receive the order we will clear them from that hill and advance."

On a tour of the battlefield with Congolese army commander Colonel Mustafa Mamadou, The Times was shown the bodies of several M23 rebels near the Rwandan border.

Pointing to a rebel with a gaping wound in his forehead, Mamadou said: "Parts of his uniform are Rwandan. From this you can tell Rwanda is supporting the M23."

A UN military source told The Times that the Rwandan uniforms were "indicators but not conclusive proof" of Rwandan military involvement in this week's battle.

"You can buy those uniforms at a market, so they could have dressed the corpses. We just don't know," said the source.

Metres away was the body of an M23 officer who had been buried in a shallow grave covered with a mound of lava rocks, The man's arm protruded from the grave.

In a field nearby lay a rebel with his face blown off.

Another dead rebel lay sprawled on his back on a bed of volcanic rock.

Mamadou has attained near celebrity status after leading his troops in a series of decisive victories against the rebels. Attempts by senior military commanders to recall him to Kinshasa have sparked protests.

Late last year the UN released a detailed report citing evidence that M23 was backed by Rwanda. Rwanda vehemently denies the charge.

Several shells landed in Rwanda in the past week, including one that killed a woman and seriously injured her baby. This prompted Rwanda to mass troops and tanks on its border with the DRC amid claims that it had sent troops over the border.

This, too, was denied, with Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo tweeting: "Rwandan troops are not in DRC (yet); when they are, you will know, and no more need for erroneous reports."

This week the Congolese army, supported by the 3000-strong UN intervention brigade, dislodged the rebels from a strategically important hill known as Three Towers, 13km from Goma.

As well as the intervention brigade, the UN has about 20000 peacekeepers in the eastern DRC.

The most recent conflict started in April 2012, when former rebels integrated into the Congolese army mutinied and formed the M23 movement, named after the peace accord of March 23 2009.

In November 2012 the rebels seized Goma for 10 days before withdrawing to positions north of the town.
In March the intervention brigade, which includes 1345 South African soldiers under the command of Colonel Patrick Dube, became the first to be given an offensive mandate by the UN Security Council.

Dube told The Times that SA troops had played a key role in this week's battles, the first time they were engaged in ground combat.

"They would still be fighting if we hadn't got involved," he said. He confirmed that snipers from 6 SA Infantry, based in Grahamstown, were deployed.

Yesterday refugees evacuated from the battlefield around Three Towers six months ago were streaming back to their homes, though many of them had been destroyed by mortar fire.

"Today is the first day I could come back to see that my house was bombed," said Beatrice Filipo, a 35-year-old mother of six. "But what can we do? It was bad because we lost our belongings, but we support the fight against the M23. We are very happy our army beat them."

Nearby, army chaplain Lieutenant-Colonel Aaron Kubuta is holding an impromptu service for 30 battle-weary soldiers on the side of the road near the front line.

One of his pastors carries an AK47 assault rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other.

"Today we are reading from Exodus: God will be the enemy of our enemy," he says. To which the troops respond in unison: "Amen!"

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