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Congo M23 rebels attack army in North Kivu province to gain more territory; army pushes back

The M23 rebel group led an attack against the Congolese army in the country's east to gather more weapons, ending a lull in fighting that has lasted a couple of months, the group said Friday.

Group spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama said that M23 rebels were leading the attack in Kirolirwe on Wednesday to take weapons from the army. He said that elements from a former rebel group in Congo also helped back the attack — the former National Congress for the Defense of the people, known as CNDP.

"Col. Badege was in the CNDP and we collaborated with him today. He holds strong positions around Mweso in Masisi," Kazarama said.

The fighting lasted all day and moved towards Sake, a town near Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province. The M23 has threatened to take Goma, but has not launched any attacks there so far.

Congolese army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli said the army pushed the rebels back into the Virunga National Park, home to some of the last mountain gorillas. He said they are now bombing that area.

The M23 rebel group of about 1,000 fighters was created after several officers from the Congolese army defected in April and May and launched a rebellion to demand better pay, better armaments and amnesty from war crimes. It has been fighting the Congo army in the North Kivu province since, although the group has not launched attacks against the army in some months. Most of the fighters were members of the CNDP which was dismantled by a peace agreement in 2009 that saw the rebels integrated into the Congolese army.

The group has a stronghold now on the border with Uganda and Rwanda, which has helped fuel allegations that Uganda and Rwanda are backing the rebellion as arms can be easily smuggled into their territory.

On Tuesday, a leaked U.N. report accused both Uganda and Rwanda of supporting the rebellion, which both countries strongly deny.

Army spokesman Col. Hamuli suggested that Friday's attack may have been meant to show that they are not backed by the East African countries.

"The M23 is trying to destabilize our positions from the inside of the territory to show that Rwanda and Uganda are not supporting them, they want to leave the border and take back their traditional fiefdom in Masisi", Col. Hamuli said.

But he also suggested that members of the Rwandan Hutu militia, known by its French acronym FDLR, also took part in the fighting in support of M23. However, earlier this month M23 said they opened a new front in the eastern city of Rutshuru to protect civilians from the FDLR.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council said it intended to impose sanctions on the M23 rebels and others who were violating the arms embargo in Congo.

"The Security Council strongly condemns the M23 and all its attacks on the civilian population, United Nations peacekeepers and humanitarian actors, as well as its abuses of human rights, including summary executions, sexual and gender based violence and large scale recruitment and use of child soldiers," the statement said. "The Security Council also condemns the attempts by the M23 to establish a parallel administration and to undermine State authority."

The council also alluded to the allegations that Rwanda and Uganda are supporting the rebellion, calling on neighboring nations to avoid interfering.

"The Security Council demands that any and all outside support to the M23 as well as other armed groups cease immediately," the statement said.

Congo's mineral-rich east is facing the worst upsurge in fighting in years, which has forced at least 320,000 people from their homes, according to the U.N.

The conflict in the east is a spillover from the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Hundreds who participated in the mass slaughter escaped into Congo and still fight there. The M23 rebels are an incarnation of a group of Congolese Tutsi set up to fight Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo.

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Associated Press writer Ron DePasquale contributed from the United Nations in New York.

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