BENI, Congo — Congo’s military on Thursday accused the M23 rebels of breaching a cease-fire, saying that they killed at least 50 people in a massacre earlier this week and warning that the army would defend civilians from attacks.
The statement comes less than a week after regional leaders issued a cease-fire ultimatum at a summit in Angola, saying M23 also needed to withdraw from the towns it seized in recent months or else an East African regional force would intervene.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO said the violence took place Tuesday in Kishishe village “and included a high number of civilian casualties.” The community is about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the regional capital, Goma.
A local civil society group said Thursday that the death toll had risen after more bodies were discovered in a field near Bwito. It said other civilians were still reported missing after the attack.
In New York, the U.N. Secretary-General’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, said MONUSCO had received reports of fighting in the area between M23 rebels and Mai-Mai militias.
However, the Congolese military blamed the deaths in Kishishe village on Rwandan defense forces and the M23. Congo has long accused Rwanda of backing the rebels, an allegation Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
“Faced with this situation, the Congolese armed forces are obliged to respond to all attacks and to do everything possible to protect the Congolese people,” said the statement by the Congolese military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge Bomusa Efomi.
“However, the (Congolese armed forces) remain determined to respect the resolutions of the mini-summit in Luanda,” he added.
Lawrence Kanyuka, M23’s political spokesman, sharply denied the allegations of involvement in the violence in Kishishe, calling them baseless.
“M23 reminds the international and National community that it has never targeted civilian populations,” Kanyuka said in a statement Thursday.
Leaders at the Angola summit warned that if M23 did not respect the cease-fire and relinquish control of the towns it held that an East African regional force would make them do so.
A contingent of Kenyan troops already has deployed to eastern Congo as part of the regional force agreed to in June. The force will eventually include two battalions from Uganda, two from Burundi and one from South Sudan as well.
The M23 rose to prominence a decade ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in Congo’s east, which sits along the border with Rwanda. After a peace agreement, many of M23?s fighters were integrated into the national military.
Then the group re-emerged just over a year ago, saying the government had failed to live up to its promises under the peace deal. By June, M23 had seized the strategic town of Bunagana near the border with Uganda. It later took control of two more major towns — Rutshuru and Kiwanja.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.