KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda said on Tuesday its troops clashed with Rwandan FDLR rebels who attacked three villages on its border with Democratic Republic of Congo, but a spokesman for the FDLR denied its fighters had been involved.
Rwanda has in the past used the presence of the FDLR as a justification for intervening in neighbor Congo. But the rebel group, which experts say has dwindled in strength, has not mounted a significant attack on Rwanda in years.
Rwandan defense forces spokesman Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita said about 150 fighters of the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu rebel group operating in eastern Congo, attacked the villages at dawn in Rubavu district in Rwanda's Western province which borders Congo's North Kivu province.
"The RDF (Rwandan Defence Forces) has been engaging them. Some fled back to the DRC and others dispersed into Rwanda in small groups and the RDF is still engaging them," he said.
He said four FDLR fighters had been killed in the clashes but no civilians had been hurt.
The FDLR, which opposes the Tutsi-led government in Kigali and includes Hutu soldiers and militia suspected of participating in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, denied it had been involved in any fighting.
"Up to now, there is nothing to confirm there was an attack by our forces against Rwanda," FDLR rebel spokesman La Forge Fils Bazeye said.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) reported fighting north of North Kivu's provincial capital Goma, which since last week has been held by Tutsi-led rebels of the M23 movement, which has driven back the U.N.-backed Congolese government forces of President Joseph Kabila.
"There is fighting with heavy artillery going on north of Goma," MONUSCO spokesman Mounoubai Madnodje said.
But he could not say who was involved in the fighting.
No independent confirmation was available of the alleged FDLR attacks on the border villages.
Asked whether the FDLR had fighters in the area of the reported fighting, Bazeye said: "That's an area controlled by M23, we can't live side by side with M23."
Congo and U.N. experts accuse Rwanda of backing the M23 group in eastern Congo, a charge vehemently denied by Rwandan President Paul Kagame who has long complained that Kabila's government and U.N. peacekeepers have not done enough to drive out the FDLR from that area.
Heads of state from the Great Lakes states at the weekend called on M23 to halt its war against Kabila's government and to withdraw from Goma. Uganda's military chief said on Tuesday that an M23 leader had agreed to withdraw from Goma.
(Reporting by Jenny Clover in Kigali and Jonny Hogg and Richard Lough in Goma; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Pravin Char)