GOMA, Congo (AP) — Fighting erupted in eastern Congo early Friday between two factions of the M23 rebel group, according to officials on both sides.
The new splinter of M23 led by President Jean-Marie Runiga attacked the main faction, led by Gen. Sultani Makenga ,in Chanzu, near the border with Uganda, around midnight, said Seraphin Mirindi, spokesman for the splinter of M23. The fighting with heavy and light weapons continued until about 5 a.m. Friday.
An estimated 23 people died in the fighting, according to an officer with the main part of M23.
Some 4,000 civilians fled the renewed violence for Uganda, said Lucy Beck, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency. The U.N. is bracing itself for a greater influx of refugees in coming weeks, she said.
The new fighting between the M23 factions has prompted other rebel groups in eastern Congo to seize territory. The key towns of Kiwanja and Rutshuru have fallen to the FDLR, a Hutu armed group linked to the Rwandan genocide. The FDLR are also attacking Kibati, just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Goma. Other local armed groups such as the Mai Mai Shetani and the Nyatura have also infiltrated the M23 territory.
The M23 divided into two groups on Wednesday over disagreements on negotiations with the Congolese government. The splinter group is led by the M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga and Gen. Baudoin Ngaruye. The new group is reported to be aligned with warlord Bosco Ntaganda.
The main part of M23 is led by Gen. Sultani Makenga and is based in Chanzu.
The group split on Wednesday after Makenga dismissed Runiga as the head of the M23 political branch. Tensions have been high within the rebel group for several weeks over negotiations with the Congolese government.
The new rebel faction wants "to take back Goma. But we want to carry on negotiating with the government," said Col. Vianney Kazarama, who belongs to Makenga's faction, who said that Bosco Ntaganda is with the splinter group. "They have money and have recruited soldiers."
However, the new rebel faction denies that Ntaganda is with them or that they want to take back Goma.
Bosco Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity he allegedly committed in eastern Congo. The United States government recently placed a bounty of $5 million dollars for capturing Ntaganda alive, according to diplomatic sources. Since its creation, the M23 has officially denied having Ntaganda in its ranks.
The new fighting and the split in the M23 appears to have scuttled the rebels' negotiations with Congolese President Joseph Kabila's government. Those talks were taking place in Kampala, Uganda.
Associated Press Writer Rodney Muhumza contributed to this report from Kampala, Uganda.