Fighting north of Goma – the end of the ceasefire?

Fighting began early this morning north of Goma, around the Congolese army’s defensive positions in Kibumba. According to various sources––including the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping mission––the M23 launched the attack, pushing down toward Goma. While the M23 deny this, saying they had been provoked, there have been M23 troop movements observed in the past days that suggest that they had been preparing an attack.

We know that, at least for now, the offensive was pushed back by the Congolese army. But it’s more difficult to figure out casualties. The North Kivu governor told the press that 44 M23 soldiers had died, and UN sources report having seen over a dozen bodies on the front lines.

Kibumba is the Congolese’s army’s main defensive position to the north of Goma, around 25 kilometers from the provincial capital. Under the command of Colonel Somo, one of the Belgian-trained officers, there are now reportedly over 3,000 army troops deployed in the surroundings, many of them dug into trenches. The Congolese army was quick to boast of its success, also claiming that they had been attacked from the Rwandan border at the town of Kasizi, just east of Kibumba.

It would appear that we are heading toward the end of ceasefire. While there have been skirmishes in Masisi and Rusthuru in recent weeks, these appear to have involved proxy groups on both sides––Mai-Mai working in collaboration with the Congolese army north and east of Rutshuru town, and M23 allies in central and northern Masisi. This appears to have been the first major fighting directly between M23 and the Congolese army in several months.

This does not mean that these other allies are quieting down––at the same time as the Kibumba fighting took place, there were reports that forces allied to the Congolese army pushed toward Rutshuru town from the north, coming into Mabenga village, with shooting heard as far south as Kiwanja. Also, fighting has been reported to the north of Bunagana on the Ugandan border since Saturday, some local sources suggest that this may be local Hutu militia, that are working in collaboration with the Congolese army.

The M23 has also been using its alliances––on Monday, a coalition of Sheka Mai-Mai and local militiamen allied to the M23 pushed the Congolese army out of Pinga, in northern Masisi territory, after killing several soldiers. And M23 allies, led by FDLR defector ‘Colonel’ Mandevu and ex-CNDP Colonel Eric Badege, have been nettling army positions in central Masisi, around Kilolirwe, in recent weeks.

This use of (often unreliable, ramshackle) allies on both sides is dangerous, as it brings the fighting to civilians and undermines any semblance of chain of command.

It is unclear whether the fighting today marks the end of the ceasefire that has held for several months as talks have been pursued in Kampala. But rumors were circulating today, especially within the Tutsi community in Goma, that M23 will be trying to take the town. Not the first time such rumors have been spread––and the M23 are known to use psychological warfare––but a warning that should be heeded, nonetheless.