Fighting raged on in the jungle region where rebel leader General Bosco Ntaganda — known as the “Terminator” and wanted in The Hague for war crimes — has led mutinous ex-army troops against government forces.
Some soldiers from his group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), said they had broken away and formed a new militia, the March 23 Movement (M23).
Amid the violence, nearly 7,500 people have fled to Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Nord Kivu province, said Antoine Ruvebana, from Rwanda’s disaster management ministry.
Ruvebana said Rwanda had identified an area to set up a transit camp for the refugees.
Rwanda already hosts about 55,000 Congolese refugees, mostly ethnic Tutsi, who escaped targeted violence by Rwandan Hutu militia operating in eastern DR Congo and who have been in the country for several years.
Refugees have also fled to Uganda, where they are adopting a “wait and see attitude”, hoping the violence dies down and they can return home swiftly, said a UN refugee agency official in Uganda’s capital Kampala.
“Initial reports we received indicate that roughly 3,000 individuals have crossed into Uganda,” said Sakura Atsumi, deputy representative for UNHCR in Uganda.
“There are many coming and the numbers seem to be increasing,” said Musa Ecweru, Uganda’s state minister for disaster preparedness.
Fierce fighting raged Friday in Nord Kivu, rebels and a government official said.
“The clashes are going on at Bunagana. We are six kilometres (four miles) from the town of Bunagana,” a mutineer who was formerly a member of the CNDP told AFP.
The fighting broke out on Thursday night close to the border with Rwanda and Uganda.
“The situation is bad. The mutineers are close to Bunagana town. Residents who spent the night in Bunagana left this morning for Uganda,” said an agent of the government’s intelligence service based in the town.
“We are still in Uganda. There is no means of going home because of the clashes,” said a Bunagana resident who fled on Thursday night with his wife and children, whom he described as traumatised.
“We can still hear the sound of heavy weapons fire.”
Mutineers questioned by AFP said they belonged to M23, the new military group formed by ex-members of the CNDP and led by Colonel Sultani Makenga, who deserted on May 4 with several dozen men and holed up in the Rutshuru territory near the border.
The mutineers said they wanted the full implementation of a peace pact signed in 2009, when they were incorporated into the national army.
Overnight Thursday, heavy fighting took place at Runyiony, near Bunagana, and on the edge of the Virunga National Park, where Ntaganda, is believed to be located.
Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on a war crimes charge of enlisting child soldiers.
He is also now wanted by the Congolese government, which holds him responsible for the fighting between troops and mutineers in the east.
A military spokesman said Thursday hundreds of mutineers had come back to the army, as a deadline loomed for them to fall back into rank.