The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s military has accused Rwanda of “no less than an invasion” after M23 rebels captured a key border town, marking a dramatic escalation in tensions between the two Central African neighbours.
Kinshasa’s military vowed on Monday that its forces would defend their homeland, hours after the Congolese town of Bunagana fell into the hands of the M23.
Bunagana is located 60km (37 miles) northeast of Goma, a city of nearly two million that also serves as a hub for international aid organizations and the United Nations peacekeeping mission, which is known by its French acronym MONUSCO.
“The Rwandan defense forces have this time decided to violate … our territorial integrity by occupying the border town of Bunagana,” General Sylvain Ekenge, spokesman for the military governor of North Kivu province, said in a statement.
Taking the key border town constituted “no less than invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo”, he added.
There was no immediate reaction from the government of Rwanda, but Kigali has strongly denied accusations over the years that it supports the M23 rebels fighting in DRC.
Many of the M23 fighters are Congolese ethnic Tutsis, and Rwanda’s president is of Rwandan Tutsi descent.
Relations between Rwanda and Congo have been fraught for decades.
Rwanda alleges that DRC gave refuge to the ethnic Hutus who carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed at least 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The two countries have long accused each other of supporting various rival armed groups.
M23 rose to prominence more than a decade ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in DRC’s east, which sits along the border with Rwanda.
After a peace deal, many of M23’s fighters were integrated into the Congolese national military.
But earlier this year the group appeared to make a comeback, launching an offensive against the DRC military after saying Kinshasa had failed to live up to its decade-long promises.
The latest fighting has led to more than 30,000 Congolese asylum seekers and 137 DRC soldiers crossing into neighboring Uganda on Monday, Shaffiq Sekandi, Uganda’s resident district commissioner for Kisoro district, told Reuters.
“They are all over, the streets are full, others have gone to churches, they are under trees, everywhere. It’s a really desperate situation,” he said.
The United Nations had previously said that 25,000 people fled the violence on Sunday.
African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for talks between DRC and Rwanda to resolve a growing diplomatic crisis.
Kigali and Kinshasa have recently traded tit-for-tat accusations of cross-border missile strikes amid the fighting on their mutual border.
Also on Monday, Rwanda accused the UN mission in DRC of “taking sides” and supporting Kinshasa as relations between the neighbors plummet.
Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo hit out at MONUSCO, accusing it of being biased against Kigali.
“When the DRC bombs Rwandan territory unprovoked, this is a serious matter that has consequences, and it has to stop once and for all,” Makolo said.
“The UN force, MONUSCO, cannot be part of this aggression, or stand by and watch it happen as has been the case, otherwise they become complicit,” she said on Twitter.
“By taking sides in this conflict, MONUSCO has contributed significantly to the intransigence of the DRC government in cross-border shelling of Rwandan territory,” she added.
The United Nations on Saturday urged all parties involved in growing tension between Kinshasa and Kigali to “immediately cease all forms of violence” in border regions.
“We are concerned over the deteriorating security situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said in a statement.