M23 rebels were still fighting and advancing on one front of their offensive in east of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday, civilian and military sources said, just hours before a ceasefire was to come into force.
Clashes were under way between the M23 and a Hutu militia in Bambo, 70 kilometres (45 miles) north of the provincial capital Goma, local sources told AFP by telephone.
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“Heavy weapons fire can be heard, people are in a panic,” a civil society representative said.
A security source confirmed the firing between the M23 and combatants from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu faction present in the DRC since the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda.
During the morning, fighting was also reported near Bwiza, close to the former stronghold of ex-Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, who operated there in the 2000s.
But the situation appeared more settled 20 kilometres north of Goma, where a frontline has formed over the last two weeks close to the town of Kibumba on national highway two.
– Friday evening ceasefire –
DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta met in Angola on Wednesday, agreeing a deal on the cessation of hostilities in eastern DRC from Friday evening.
M23 rebels were to withdraw from “occupied zones”, failing which the East African regional force would intervene.
But the rebels, a largely Congolese Tutsi militia, said Thursday the ceasefire “doesn’t really concern us”, and called for “direct dialogue” with DRC’s government.
“Normally when there is a ceasefire it is between the two warring sides,” a spokesman for the rebels added.
Then on Friday, M23 president Bertrand Bisimwa put out a statement saying, “once again .. (M23) accepts the ceasefire as recommended” by the Luanda summit.
Kinshasa should “in turn respect it, otherwise the M23 fully reserves the right to defend itself”, Bisimwa added.
The March 23 group had been dormant for years, but took up arms again late last year.
The DRC accuses Rwanda of supporting the rebels — charges that Kigal denies.
The rebels have recently seized swaths of territory north of Goma, a city of one million which they briefly captured 10 years ago.
Kinshasa has refused to engage with the M23, which it calls a “terrorist movement”, as long as it occupies territory in the DRC.
The M23 is among scores of armed groups that have turned eastern DRC into one of Africa’s most violent regions.
Many such armed groups are legacies of two wars before the turn of the century that sucked in countries from the region and left millions dead.