The East African Community’s armed force, led by Kenya, has vowed to protect the city of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as M23 rebels advance toward the city, which is home to one million people.
Kenya sent hundreds of troops to Goma this week to quell the violence after rebels clashed with the Congolese army.
The Kenyan commander of the force, Jeff Nyagah, said the city will be safe.
“We are here to protect and defend the Goma international airport, including the force headquarters, as the rest of the processes continue,” he said.
The commander said the regional force was an intervention force, not a peacekeeping one.
M23 fighters are reported to have advanced to within 20 kilometers to Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, after the Congolese army abandoned their defensive positions.
East African countries agreed in April to send troops to the DRC to help stabilize the country’s eastern region, which has seen decades of conflict sparked by the presence of foreign rebel groups and fighting among local groups over control of the area’s mines, which produce gold, diamonds, tin and other valuable resources.
Blaise Karege, an independent political and security researcher in eastern Congo, said M23 is mainly concerned about fighting foreign rebels, who are terrorizing the local population.
They won’t come to Goma, he said, adding that they are fighting in the parks and with the Rwandan rebel group FDLR and other militias used by the FDLR. They are there to protect their people and properties against those rebels, and are not interested in Goma, he said.
There is an ethnic component to the fighting in North Kivu. M23 is made up mainly of Tutsis and has accused the Congo government of failing to protect their families against other rebel groups in the region led by Hutus.
Great Lakes Region security expert Dismas Nkunda said using force to manage the DRC conflict will create more instability. A confrontation between M23 and the East African peacekeeping force would derail the entire process of peace in Congo, he warned.
Experts say M23 is one of the country’s most heavily armed groups and remains a real threat to the region’s stability.
The Kinshasa government believes Rwanda to be behind the resurgence of the rebel group in the east of the country, an accusation denied by Kigali.
The regional force is also tasked with disarming rebel groups in the country, a move Nkunda sees as impractical, if not impossible.
There are about 133 rebel groups in DRC, some allied to the government, others allied to individual companies that are exploiting the Democratic Republic of Congo minerals and other natural wealth, and others belong to various countries, he said. The Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, which is Ugandan, runs a vast territory, Nkunda said, adding that for a force of 900 soldiers that Kenya has sent in, in the DRC which has nine borders and stretches to the Atlantic Ocean with various rebel groups operating in the country, it is not possible they will be able to disarm those rebel groups.
This week, former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta visited the eastern DRC. He called for increased humanitarian aid and for warring parties to engage in peace talks to find a solution to the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.