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Conflict in DR Congo intensifies

Thousands of people are fleeing violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as fighting intensifies between the Congolese army and the M23 armed group.

Fighters reportedly surrounded the strategic town of Sake on Wednesday, a crucial step before reaching Goma, the capital of North Kivu. Capturing Sake would deal a logistical blow to Congolese soldiers.

It is the latest episode in a resurgence of fighting that has seen tens of thousands added to the nearly seven million who have been forced from their homes in the country because of multiple conflicts.

Rebels from the ethnic Tutsi-led M23 movement are blocking the two main roads into Goma from the north and the west and preventing produce from getting through.

In a region already plagued with militia violence, M23 rebels launched a major new offensive in March 2022, sparking a conflict that has led to military intervention and mediation efforts by East African regional leaders. They brokered a ceasefire last year but it has been repeatedly violated.

Clashes between the rebels, army forces and self-defence groups that support them have escalated recently, forcing entire communities in Masisi and Rutshuru territories to flee to perceived areas of greater safety on the outskirts of Goma.

The Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers have been struggling to contain M23’s advance. And as fighting continues, thousands of those who fled Sake have arrived in Bulengo, about 10km (six miles) west of Goma.

The DRC government this week promised that it would not let Goma, situated close to the border with Rwanda, fall into M23 hands. The armed group briefly overran North Kivu province in 2012.

On Wednesday, M23 said in a statement that this was not its goal and described its actions as “defensive manoeuvres”.

The DRC, Western powers and a UN expert group said the Tutsi-led rebel group is supported by Rwanda. Rwanda has denied all involvement, but the accusations have led to a diplomatic crisis in the region.

Natalia Torrent, head of a Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) team in Mweso, said violent clashes broke out two weeks ago as the army and pro-government militia tried to reclaim the town.

After a lull, fighting picked up over the weekend and the MSF team received 30 wounded people in recent days, she told Reuters by phone on Tuesday.

MSF has had to evacuate some of its own staff after bullets struck a hospital in which thousands of Mweso residents were taking shelter. Most have since deserted the town.

The UN peacekeeping mission in DRC deployed troops at the end of January to secure a corridor for people fleeing Mweso. Many have sought safety in Sake.

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