Thousands of people are fleeing violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as fighting intensifies between the Congolese army and the M23 armed group.
Fighters reportedly surrounded the strategic town of Sake on Wednesday, a crucial step before reaching Goma, the capital of North Kivu. Capturing Sake would deal a logistical blow to Congolese soldiers.
The Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers have been struggling to contain the M23’s advance. And as fighting continues, thousands of those who fled Sake have arrived in Bulengo, about 10 kilometers (six miles) west of Goma.
It remains unclear whether the army or the rebels are now controlling the area.
In a region already plagued with militia violence, M23 rebels launched a major new offensive in March 2022, sparking a conflict that has led to military intervention and mediation efforts by East African regional leaders. They brokered a ceasefire last year but it has been repeatedly violated.
Clashes between the rebels, army forces and self-defence groups that support them have escalated recently, forcing entire communities to flee to perceived areas of greater safety on the outskirts of Goma.
Meanwhile, in Goma on Wednesday, a rocket landed near a university. There were no casualties from the attack, which blasted a crater into an area of open ground in the Lac Vert neighbourhood northwest of Goma, but it underscored the potential threat to the city of approximately two million people.
The DRC government this week promised that it would not let Goma, situated close to the border with Rwanda, fall into M23 hands. The armed group briefly overran North Kivu province in 2012. On Wednesday, M23 said in a statement that this was not its goal and described its actions as “defensive maneuvers.”.
The DRC, Western powers, and a UN expert group said the Tutsi-led rebel group is supported by Rwanda. About 42,000 people have been displaced from Masisi alone since February 2, the UN’s humanitarian office, OCHA, said on Tuesday.
M23 made major advances in the town of Mweso last month, bringing the conflict even closer to Goma, which is about 100km (62 miles) away. The UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC deployed troops at the end of January to secure a corridor for people fleeing Mweso. Many have sought safety in Sake.