GOMA, Congo – The Congolese army claimed on Monday that it killed 120 rebels in eastern Congo.
Twelve Congolese troops were also killed in the fighting, said government spokesman Lambert Mende in the capital, Kinshasa.
The heavy fighting between Congo's army and the M23 rebels resumed Monday after erupting Sunday afternoon following the arrival from Rwanda of more than 100 armed men disguised in women's clothing, say residents.
"They were wearing kikwembe" — a Congolese shawl worn by women — "over their uniforms, and women's headscarves," said Bifumbu Ruhira, a farmer at the village of Kanyarucinya on the front line between the Congolese army and the M23 rebels, who started fighting the government last year.
Ruhira told the Associated Press he saw the oddly dressed combatants get off two trucks on the Rwandan side and run across the border. "They were wearing kikwembe to confuse us, to conceal the fact they were soldiers," he said. "The whole village was afraid and I said to my wife, 'Get to Goma,'" he said, naming the nearby provincial capital which he thought would be safe from the fighting.
A report by the United Nations panel of experts studying Congo, made public in June, alleges that Rwandan soldiers have joined the M23 in recent months, a claim that Rwanda adamantly denies.
Last year, the U.N. experts alleged that entire units from the Rwandan army had travelled to Congo to reinforce the M23 in battle. Though Rwanda has consistently denied supporting M23, the allegations have been deemed plausible by numerous donor countries, which have cut off aid to Rwanda over the accusations.
Both sides blamed each other for the renewed fighting.
The Congolese army and Rwandan rebel allies attacked the M23 positions 12 kilometers (7 miles) north of Goma, charged rebel spokesman Vianney Kazarama.
Small arms, mortar and rocket fire was moving westwards Sunday, suggesting the M23 made some initial gains.
But the heavier fire appeared to be coming from the Congolese army, which was reinforced with tanks, and on Monday the army launched an attack at Kibati, an M23 controlled village.
Peace talks between the Congolese government and the M23 stalled again last week as the head of the M23 delegation, Rene Abandi, complained that the head of the government delegation had left the talks.
The United Nations mission in Congo (MONUSCO) said Monday that the fighting broke out after M23 had been reinforced and had attacked government forces. The U.N. mission said it is ready to use lethal force to protect civilians and "any attempt by the M23 to advance towards Goma will be considered a direct threat to civilians."
There were no reports by Monday early afternoon of U.N. peacekeepers taking part in the fighting.
There has also been renewed fighting further north on Congo's border with Uganda, where an Islamist Ugandan rebel group has occupied several villages near the town of Beni. More than 60,000 civilians have fled from the area to Uganda, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Congo, an enormous nation which stretches across a territory as large as most of Western Europe, has been repeatedly dragged into conflict by rebellions in its troubled east. The complex conflict traces its roots to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, led by the country's Hutu majority. The killers fled across the porous border into Congo, where they regrouped into a number of rebel groups. To fight them, Rwanda's Tutsi-led government is accused of financing and providing military and logistic support to rebel groups made up of mostly Tutsi fighters, the ethnic group that bore the brunt of the genocide.
The latest Tutsi-led group in eastern Congo is the M23, which is made up of fighters from a previous Tutsi-led rebellion whose leaders had reluctantly agreed to join the ranks of the Congolese army in 2009. In April of last year, these former rebels-turned-soldiers defected from the Congolese military, creating M23, which went on to invade and briefly occupy the major eastern city of Goma late last year. The speed with which the rebels took the city, marching past thousands of U.N. peacekeepers and systematically overtaking Congolese military positions, led many to conclude that the new rebel group was propped up by Rwanda.
Meanwhile, Rwanda has given asylum to about 680 Congolese rebels who fled earlier this year after a violent split within the M23 rebel movement, according to the minister in charge of refugees. Seraphine Mukantabana said Monday the rebels were disarmed and had since made a complete transition to civilian status as a government commission considers their applications for official refugee status.
Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal; Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda and Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report.