KINSHASA, Congo – United Nations helicopters fired on rebels fighting Congolese troops just outside a city of nearly 1 million people in eastern Congo on Wednesday, a military spokesman for the U.N. mission said.
The fighting began just before 8 a.m. Wednesday in the hills of the Kibati area, about 9 miles (15 kilometers) north of the provincial capital of Goma.
The M23 rebels briefly seized the city late last year and then retreated to the north. The new upsurge in fighting has prompted fears the rebels could again assault the city.
Lt. Col. Felix Basse, the military spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, said that U.N. forces were taking part in the fighting alongside the Congolese army Wednesday.
"MONUSCO has enlisted all of its attack helicopters and its artillery ... to push back the M23 offensive that is under way right now on the hills of Kibati," he told journalists in the capital of Kinshasa.
The M23 fighters launched their rebellion last year and peace talks with the Congolese government have repeatedly stalled.
Congolese forces are now receiving extra help from a newly created U.N. intervention brigade that can join them on the frontline of fighting.
The intervention brigade — consisting of Tanzanian, South African and Malawian soldiers — was created by the U.N. Security Council in March to reinforce the 17,000 U.N. blue helmeted peacekeepers already with the mission. The peacekeepers can only protect civilians but are not authorized to take the offensive against the rebels. The new intervention brigade, however, has a stronger mandate than past U.N. peacekeeping missions and is authorized to battle the rebel forces operating in mineral-rich eastern Congo.
Siphiwe Dlamini, a spokesman for the South African military, says the South Africans are fighting alongside troops from Tanzania. He said one South African soldier was wounded in fighting over the weekend but could not talk about M23 casualties. Most of the fighting is being done by Congolese troops, he said.
"We are retaliating and going on the offensive," he said. "The main engagement is by the (Congo) forces."
Martin Kobler, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, said the U.N. forces were doing their best to protect the city of Goma from rebel attacks.
"We can't guarantee the security of Goma's population but we can do all we can to improve security and prevent shells and other threats," he said.
Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Johannesburg contributed to this report.