Congolese M23 rebels captured two key towns Saturday as fighting intensified in eastern Congo’s North Kivu province, according to a security mapping monitor.
Fighters captured Kiwanja and Rutshuru, the Kivu Security Tracker that maps violence in eastern Congo wrote on Twitter.
The contingent of Congolese forces (FARDC), which protects the towns, left their positions in the Rumangabo area, their largest base in the Rutshuru territory of North Kivu, it said, adding that the rebels surrounded the locality, home of the Virunga National Park headquarters and a United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) camp.
The capture of Kiwanja, roughly 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Goma, the provincial capital, effectively cut off the direct route to the capital from the north of the province.
Army national spokesman, Gen. Sylvain Ekenge, did not respond to calls for comment.
But the army recently said it was making tactical withdrawals from populated areas to take fighting away from towns to protect civilians.
Capt. Anthony Mualushayi, military spokesman in the far north, said Friday that the army was determined to “restore peace to our people willingly or by force because that is our mission.”
“Everywhere we will carry out operations to give peace to our people,” he said.
President Felix Tshisekedi convened a national security meeting Saturday to discuss the evolving security situation in the east, his office announced.
Meanwhile, four peacekeepers were wounded Saturday during attacks by M23 rebels in Kiwanja, Rutshuru territory, MONUSCO said in a statement.
“MONUSCO recalls that attacks against UN peacekeepers may constitute war crimes and will spare no effort to prosecute those responsible before national and/or international courts,” it warned, adding that it “strongly condemns the hostile actions of the M23 and their serious consequences on civilian populations.”
Since the resumption of clashes between the army and M23 rebels last week, more than 50, 000 people have been displaced in North Kivu province, the UN Office for Humanitarian Coordination (OCHA), said Friday.
But humanitarian activities have been impeded due to challenges, it said.
The Congo has accused Rwanda of backing M23 rebels, a charge Rwanda denies.
The Rwandan government this week accused the Congolese army of using heavy weaponry, targeting Rwanda’s border zone during the renewed fighting in the east.