Congo soldiers, U.N. forces battle M23 rebels

Aug 25, 2013, 10:14 AM EDT
Angry residents take to the streets to protest recent violence including mortar attacks that have struck homes and churches in the eastern provincial capital, killing at least seven civilians and wounding dozens of others, in Goma, Congo, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. Congolese soldiers supported by U.N. forces fought rebels in the country's deteriorating east for hours early Saturday, officials said, while a deadly rocket landed inside the town of Goma. Congo immediately blamed the attacks on neighboring Rwanda
(AP Photo/Joseph Kay)

GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congolese soldiers and rebel forces suffered heavy casualties Sunday, a doctor near the front line said, as they fought for a fifth day near the city of Goma in the country's volatile east.

Dr. Isaac Warwanamisa said he had seen 82 dead since early morning, 23 of whom were government soldiers, he said, the highest death toll reported since hostilities broke out last week.

A chaplain at the military hospital in Goma, Lea Masika, said 59 wounded were brought in on Sunday, bringing the total at the hospital to 720.

The Congolese government troops are still fighting to take a hill from where M23 can target Goma, and have advanced less than a mile (about 2 kilometers) since fighting resumed Wednesday after a three-week lull.

Congolese troops backed by U.N. forces fought the rebels for hours on Saturday. Three U.N. peacekeepers were wounded in the fighting. The U.N. mission created in March with a stronger mandate to protect civilians fired for the first time on rebel positions Thursday.

"We are using artillery, indirect fire with mortars and our aviation, and at the moment we have troops in the front line alongside (the government forces)," the U.N. force commander in Congo, Gen. Dos Santos Cruz, said.

However, there has been 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. And on Saturday, scores of Goma residents took to the streets in anger over a series of rocket and mortar attacks that have left at least seven civilians dead in recent days. Two other residents were killed during the demonstration, and the U.N. called for a joint investigation.

Congo accuses neighboring Rwanda of helping the rebels, charges denied by Rwanda's government. M23's leaders previously headed other rebel groups in the region that were backed by Rwanda. M23 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.

Peace talks in neighboring Uganda have repeatedly stalled, and M23 has vowed to fight back against the U.N. intervention brigade. The intervention brigade, made up of Tanzanian, South African and Malawian soldiers, is reinforcing 17,000 U.N. blue helmets already with the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO.