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A rebel group with alleged links to neighboring Rwanda claimed Wednesday to have seized a key town in Congo’s conflict-hit eastern region amid intense fighting, raising further security concerns ahead of the country’s Dec. 20 presidential election.
Mweso town, which is about 62 miles from the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma, came under the control of the M23 rebel group following days of fighting with government-backed forces, Lawrence Kanyuka, the group’s spokesman, said.
Residents in the area told The Associated Press they witnessed gunfire between the rebels and security forces. “The enemy has managed to reoccupy Mweso,” said one, Alain Kamala.
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The AP was not immediately able to verify who was in control of the town. The Congolese army confirmed there was fighting under way around the area.
The flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is seen in Beijing, May 26, 2023. (Photo by Wang Xin/VCG)
M23 rose to prominence 10 years ago when its fighters seized Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city on the border with Rwanda. It derives its name from a March 23, 2009, peace deal which it accuses the Congo government of not implementing.
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi blames Rwanda for destabilizing Congo by backing the M23 rebels. U.N. experts have linked the rebels to Rwandan forces. Rwanda denies this.
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Fighting in eastern Congo has been simmering for decades as more than 120 groups fight for power, land and valuable mineral resources, while others try to defend their communities. But it spiked in late 2021 when M23, which had been largely dormant, resurfaced and started capturing territory.
The rebels said the latest round of fighting started after government-backed forces “attacked heavily populated areas and our positions on many axes” and that they “will not hesitate to protect the civilian population and its belongings.”
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Residents fear for their safety. Tshisekedi, who seeks reelection, has said rebel-controlled territories might not participate in the December vote for security reasons.