KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Mortar shells fell on a market in eastern Congo, killing four people Monday as fighting intensified between government soldiers and the M23 fighters who have lost most of the land they once controlled, a military spokesman said.
Lt. Col. Olivier Hamuli told The Associated Press the town of Bunagana was hit on market day. He blamed M23 rebels, though their leader on Sunday had called on his fighters to lay down their weapons. "Three mortar shells fell in east Congo and one across the border in Uganda," Hamuli said. "We don't understand why M23 signed a ceasefire only to not care about the civilians."
Congolese government troops on Wednesday retook Bunagana town, M23's last stronghold, but some of the rebels are believed to be hiding in the surrounding bush. On Monday, Hamuli said that Congolese soldiers also had recaptured Mbuzi, one of the three remaining hills under the control of M23.
The intensified fighting between Congolese forces and M23 rebels forced thousands more Congolese to seek refuge in Uganda, according to Uganda's military and humanitarian workers. Uganda deployed more troops and tanks near the border town once controlled by the rebels, Ugandan army spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said Monday. He said they were "very concerned" after projectiles fired from Congo landed on Ugandan territory.
At least five people have been wounded in Uganda in the past week since Congolese forces intensified their assault on the rebels, Ankunda said. Lucy Beck, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in Uganda, said the Bunagana border area had become "too dangerous" for refugees and humanitarian workers, who had to relocate deeper into Ugandan territory.
Some Congolese who had returned home last week after a brief lull in fighting have since crossed back to Uganda following clashes late Sunday, she said. More than 10,000 Congolese have fled to Uganda since last week.
Peace talks in Uganda between the rebels and Congo's government have repeatedly stalled since December. A group of international envoys to Africa's Great Lakes region has urged a political solution to the conflict. The group, which includes U.S. envoy Russ Feingold, urged the Congolese government to "restrain from further military action at this stage." The envoys also urged M23 to renounce its rebellion, according to a joint statement released Monday.
M23 launched its rebellion in April 2012, becoming the latest reincarnation of an ethnic Tutsi rebel group dissatisfied with the Congolese government. A report by U.N. experts has said neighboring Rwanda, whose president is also an ethnic Tutsi, provided weapons, recruits and training to M23 rebels. Rwanda's government denies the allegations, saying Congo's government has failed to police its territory.
M23 has been substantially weakened in the past year by internal divisions and waning Rwandan support, according to the U.N. Defections from the M23 are up this month, totaling 80 in October. Thirty-three surrendered alone on Tuesday, according to chief U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.
The Congolese military has capitalized on these rebel setbacks by pushing ahead with new offensives beginning in August that have been supported by a brigade of U.N. forces with a mandate to attack the rebels.
Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda.