DR Congo’s M23 rebels chose the 20th anniversary of an attack on the city of Goma to target northeastern villages Sunday, interrupting religious services and spreading terror among local people.
After Saturday passed off calmly, in the wake of international appeals for a ceasefire, the lull lasted just a day as the rebel group wrought further havoc.
“We were at church for mass and the M23 went on the rampage, firing a lot of shots,” a pastor from Katwiguru in Rutschuru territory, in the eye of the unrest, told AFP by telephone.
Local official Jean Bosco Bahati said the rebels overran several villages some 35 kilometres (20 miles) from Ishasha near the Ugandan border.
“The population is in disarray,” said Bahati.
Further south, Sunday also saw fighting at Kibumba some 20 kilometres north of Goma, capital of North-Kivu.
A security source said on condition of anonymity there had been fierce skirmishes and said at least three officers had been injured.
The largely Congolese Tutsi M23 militia has seized swathes of territory across North Kivu and edged towards Goma with fighting displacing tens of thousands of people.
The unrest has also reignited regional tensions, with the DRC accusing its much smaller neighbour Rwanda of backing the M23, something that UN experts and US officials have also pointed to in recent months.
Sunday’s fighting came 20 years to the day since M23 briefly took over Goma before being forced out after a 10-day occupation.
The militia re-emerged last year, claiming Kinshasa had failed to honour a pledge to integrate its fighters into the army, among other grievances.
Kenya’s former leader Uhuru Kenyatta has been attempting to mediate over recent weeks, saying Rwandan President Paul Kagame is ready to encourage the militia to cease fire and pull back from captured territory.
Kenyatta is the East African Community’s “facilitator” in efforts to restore peace and security in the mineral-rich east of the impoverished country hosting dozens of armed groups.
Kigali denies supporting the M23, while accusing Kinshasa of colluding with the FDLR, a former Rwandan Hutu rebel group established in the DRC after the 1994 genocide of mainly Tutsis in Rwanda.
Kenyan President William Ruto is due to hold talks Monday in Kinshasa with Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi as part of ongoing diplomatic efforts to ramp down tensions.
Nairobi is also set to hold peace talks in the coming days.
Kenya is also sending about 900 troops to the DRC as part of a joint EAC force created to help restore security, with the first batch of soldiers arriving last week.
After Kenyatta’s visit earlier this week, he warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” unfolding.
On Friday, he also appealed for enhanced UN humanitarian assistance to those displaced by the fighting.