GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congolese government forces and M23 rebels in the volatile east fought early Tuesday in clashes that killed at least one rebel fighter and forced others to retreat farther south from the provincial capital of Goma, a rebel leader said Tuesday.
Rene Abandi, who leads M23 rebels in peace negotiations in neighboring Uganda, said the Congolese army launched a ground assault on rebel positions in the Kanyamahoro area, about 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) from Goma, around 2 a.m. The rebels fought back in the attack that killed one rebel fighter and wounded two others, he said in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where M23 and the Congolese government have been negotiating a settlement since last year.
M23 representatives met with their Ugandan mediator on Tuesday following reports of renewed fighting in eastern Congo, according to Abandi, but it remains unclear how much progress has been made. The talks have repeatedly stalled.
Congolese military spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli gave no casualty toll and said calm had since returned to the area. Abandi said the fighting had been brief because the rebels had instructions not to launch a counter-offensive.
"We can't fight and talk peace at the same time," Abandi said. "M23 remains attached to the peace process....But we don't have another choice apart from defending ourselves."
He said the rebels wanted to preserve "goodwill" for the talks but "shall be obliged to respond" if the Congolese army continues to launch attacks.
Hamuli declined to comment on M23's allegations, saying the rebels were "agitators."
The M23 fighters launched their rebellion last year and in November briefly overtook Goma, a strategic city along the Rwanda border that is home to nearly 1 million people. The rebel group is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009. Even before the creation of the M23 in 2012, eastern Congo's forest-covered hills have harbored other rebel groups, ethnic militias and renegade units of the regular army.
An upsurge in violence in late August raised fears of another attempt on Goma. At the time, Congolese troops backed by U.N. forces battled M23 rebels near Goma in clashes that threatened to escalate into a regional border war after Rwanda complained that missiles had been fired into its territory. The rebels are widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, which denies the charges despite multiple U.N. reports citing evidence to the contrary.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame told a news conference in the capital, Kigali, on Tuesday that allegations of Rwandan military support for M23 have been "fabricated."
"Rwanda is not behind the problems in (Congo) but whatever happens in (Congo) spills over to Rwanda," Kagame said. "We have no capacity to control what is happening inside (Congo), but what we have no doubt about is the ability to protect our territory."
Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda. Associated Press reporter Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed to this report.