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GOMA, DR Congo (AFP) – The Congolese army on Wednesday stepped up an offensive against M23 rebels in the country's volatile east, shelling positions north of the flashpoint city of Goma.
Backed by tanks, mortars and heavy machine guns mounted on gun carriages, the regular soldiers pounded M23 positions on the hills overlooking Kanyarucinya and Kibati in the restive east of the country.
As on Tuesday, three army helicopters also targeted rebel positions, an AFP photographer said.
Exchanges of automatic weapons fire grew heavier in the late afternoon, suggesting that army soldiers were unleashing a ground offensive.
The deadliest clashes in months in the mineral-rich region broke out on Sunday, with at least 130 people killed including 10 soldiers, according to a toll given by the DR Congo army on Monday.
The M23 is an armed group launched by Tutsi former soldiers who mutinied from the Congolese army in April 2012 and occupied the flashpoint city of Goma for 10 days in November before withdrawing under international pressure.
On Wednesday the rebels offered little resistance, claiming that the army and the UN peacedkeeping mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO) were setting a "trap" for them.
"If we respond, we may cause damage" since the targeted positions are near displaced people's camps as well as a MONUSCO base, said Bertrand Bisimwa, M23's political chief, told AFP.
"There's a risk of drawing MONUSCO (into the conflict). I think that's the trap that the FARDC (DR Congo army) and MONUSCO want to set for us," he said.
However according to unconfirmed reports from Western military sources, the rebels are holding back because of supply difficulties.
Army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli said Tuesday that DR Congo's forces were gaining ground as they sought to "wipe out M23".
MONUSCO has so far not intervened in the conflict but on Tuesday warned its troops -- which include an offensive brigade that has begun to deploy in the region -- were on high alert and ready to intervene in case of attack.
The peacekeepers on Wednesday denied accusations that they had shelled Rwandan villages during the recent clashes between the Congolese army and M23.
General Joseph Nzabamwita of the Rwandan army had charged Monday that MONUSCO troops targeted two villages, claiming that two shells, which landed without harming inhabitants, were nonetheless a "deliberate provocation".
But MONUSCO hit back at the accusations in a statement, saying: "Not a single shot was fired (by its troops) on July 15, the date these 'bombardments' took place."
The UN statement called on Rwanda to submit any complaint to the enlarged Joint Verification Mechanism (JVM), a UN-backed panel of experts from Rwanda, DR Congo and other Great Lakes nations, that resolves border problems in the region.
In March, the UN Security Council decided to boost MONUSCO with an offensive brigade of 3,000 men who were given an unprecedented mandate to disarm rebel groups in the east of the country.
MONUSCO "has put its troops on high alert and stands ready to take any necessary measures, including the use of lethal force, to protect civilians," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky announced in New York.