/ 27 October 2023

Civilians killed in DRC as clashes spread

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Destitute: A family stand outside their shelter in Bulengo displacement camp in Goma, situated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s North Kivu province. Photo: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/Getty Images

With 26 civilians reported killed by militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) group and rebel combat spreading closer to the provincial capital Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo was in turmoil this week.

News of the massacre spread the morning after an overnight attack on the outskirts of Oicha town in Beni territory, the epicentre of the years-long rampage by IS-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in North Kivu province.

Originally fielding mainly Muslim Ugandan rebels, the ADF gained a foothold in the region in the 1990s and are accused of slaughtering thousands of civilians. Since 2019, some ADF attacks in eastern DRC have been claimed by the IS.

“We have just placed 26 bodies in the morgue of Oicha’s general hospital,” said Darius Syaira, Beni territory’s civil society representative. 

An army spokesperson confirmed the death toll.

Syaira said the victims were 12 minors and 14 adults, and most were killed with knives. He added that tensions were high in Oicha, with demonstrators setting fire to vehicles carrying food from humanitarian organisations.

“We don’t need humanitarian aid, but we do want security,” one of the demonstrators said when asked why residents had attacked the trucks.

Police said the ADF were behind the murder of a honeymoon couple and their safari guide in one of Uganda’s national parks on 17 October. The IS claimed responsibility for the attack.

In the south of North Kivu, fighting between M23 rebels and pro-government armed groups moved closer to Goma on Tuesday, with sources reporting exchanges of fire within 20km of the city.

“There has been fighting in Kibumba since this morning,” said a security source who requested anonymity.

“The rebels are clashing with the wazalendo [groups loyal to the government]. The M23 has just fired two bombs at us and we are retaliating.”

In the afternoon, the military governor’s spokesperson accused the rebels “backed by the Rwandan army” of attacking an army position. A security source and a civilian witness said the army had deployed a Suhoi-25 fighter jet against the rebels.

“The situation is getting worse and worse. Both sides are exchanging heavy weapons fire,” a resident said. “We’re having to flee.”

The M23, which has captured swathes of territory in North Kivu province since 2021, is just one of numerous militias holding sway over much of the region despite the presence of peacekeepers.

The conflict has recently intensified around Goma, home to over a million people, with M23 rebels and armed groups loyal to the government breaking a precarious truce.

Officially, the army is respecting the ceasefire, but witnesses say soldiers and pro-government loyalists are fighting together against the M23.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said almost 200  000 people have had to flee their homes since 1  October in Rutshuru and Masisi territory, north of Goma.

The fighting, which is also affecting Nyiragongo territory closer to Goma, has claimed dozens of lives.

Independent UN officials, the Kinshasa government and several Western nations including the United States and France accuse Rwanda of backing the Tutsi-led M23, which Kigali denies. In May the DRC accused its neighbour and the M23 of planning an attack on Goma, which borders Rwanda.

Government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya on Monday spoke of “yet another incursion” by the Rwandan army into the DRC’s territory last week, with “about 50” civilians killed by M23 rebels.

An M23 representative denied this. 

Uganda and the DRC launched a joint offensive in 2021 against the ADF to drive the militants out of their Congolese strongholds, but attacks have continued.An East African Community force has been deployed since the end of last year but, like the UN force in the DRC, it has been criticised by Kinshasa for not stopping the violence. — AFP