GOMA, Congo (AP) — A new U.N. intervention brigade has fired on M23 rebels for the first time in eastern Congo since being given a much stronger mandate to protect civilians earlier this year, U.N. and Congolese army officials said Friday.
Thursday's attack with field artillery occurred the same day mortar shells rained on homes in several residential neighborhoods of Goma. At least four civilians were killed in the violence and a dozen others wounded.
Congolese army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli said Friday the U.N. "brigade is on our side. They're supporting us with artillery."
A U.N. official said it was a defensive operation to protect civilians and U.N. bases — not an offensive operation. All elements of the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO were involved, including the intervention brigade. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the U.N. operation have not been made public.
New mission chief Martin Kobler, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative in Congo, told journalists Friday that his brigade will protect Goma, a city of nearly a million people on the Congo-Rwanda border that was briefly overtaken by rebels in November. He said the U.N.'s objective in recent heavy fighting outside Goma was "to defend the town but also to eliminate the M23's positions."
The Intervention Brigade, consisting of Tanzanian, South African and Malawian soldiers, was created by the U.N. Security Council in March and has deployed to Congo over the past few months, reinforcing 17,000 U.N. blue helmets already with the mission. The brigade has a stronger mandate than past U.N. peacekeeping missions and is authorized to battle the rebel forces operating in eastern Congo.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende welcomed the mission's more aggressive stance, and implied Friday it was overdue. "I think we can simply welcome the fact that the brigade has gone into action since yesterday. It's a good thing, better late than never," he said.
There is widespread skepticism in Congo that the intervention brigade will be a game-changing addition to the existing U.N. force, which stood by when M23 fighters briefly captured Goma late last year before withdrawing following heavy international pressure on Rwanda, their alleged backer.
The Rwandan government has consistently denied allegations that it has been supporting M23, whose leaders are veterans of previous rebellions that were backed by Rwanda.
Fighting between Congolese government forces and the M23 broke out again Wednesday, some 15 kilometers (nine miles) north of Goma, after a three-week lull.
Kobler called the targeting of civilians inexcusable and said that was why he had given the order to the U.N. mission to react. "Our principal task is to protect civilians but also to neutralize armed groups," he said.
Congolese army officials said that so far only the Tanzanians in the U.N. brigade had taken action against the M23. A U.N. official told the AP that this was because the brigade's artillery unit is Tanzanian and did not reflect any reluctance by South African troops.
Mineral-rich eastern Congo has been bloodied by fighting by a wide array of rebel groups and the Congolese military since the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Mwanamilongo reported from Kinshasa, Congo. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Christopher Torchia in Johannesburg and Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre, Malawi contributed to this report.