M23 conflict revived on different fronts: Mutaho and the internet

After the recent events around Beni, in the so-called Grand Nord, marking a longtime suspected battlefield resurrection of Ugandan militia ADF-Nalu, also the outskirts of Goma experienced new skirmishes again.

Last week, Congo news have been marked by islamist ADF rebels taking control over some parts of Beni territory, including the locality of Mbau/Kamango. Their operations, according to observers and the Ugandan Red Cross, triggered a refugee/displacement flow of nearly 60,000. Part of the confrontations included an attack of UN peacekeepers in Kamango. Over the weekend though, the Congolese government army was able to regain control over most critical points. While rumours of Al-Shabaab presence in the ranks of ADF were never independently confirmed (and seem to be quite far fetched) it is clear that longtime dormant, but ideologically cohesive ADF remains a serious threat to civilian populations and possible financial help by islamist forces, such as the Harakat-al-Shabaab movement certainly cannot be ruled out.

Last weekend saw war between M23 and FARDC reigniting in the north of Goma. Around the locality of Mutaho (around 7/8 km north of Goma, not far from Munigi and Kibati, fighting resumed – after relative tranquility for a few weeks – on Sunday around 2pm local time. 4 hours of intense fighting including heavy weapons such as bombs and mortars (diverse sources on the ground including M23, FARDC, UN, and non-military observers) were followed by a more quiet night. It is unclear so far, which side has begun the skirmishes. While M23 told With Eyes Wide Open that FARDC had opened fire on their longtime held positions north of Mutaho, the government army denied this, stating that shooting first came from M23. Third party observers are mixed in their assessments, and so are official statements of the belligerents.

Two rumours, however, are most probably hoaxes:  M23 has not “approached” Goma, they maintained positions they had secured months before. Also, FDLR or Nyatura fighters are (at least) not fighting with FARDC at this front during the last 48 hours.

Shooting and shelling then restarted early Monday morning, around 7am. Under command of Col. Mamadou Ndala, three FARDC battalions (partly commandos and republican guards, subsumed under the name of “unité de réaction rapide) engaged in large-scale warfare against M23 (With Eyes Wide Open cannot confirm if aircraft played a role in the whole setting). Eventually, M23 lost ground – probably due to unequal arms supply, FARDC had cut a supply route towards Kibumba earlier, and combatant ratio. FARDC were able to repulse their adversaries beyond Mutaho by late afternoon. UN peacekeepers identified as members of the Force Intervention Brigade (MONUSCO’s new offensive supplement to “neutralise” non-state armed actors) was present with Tanzanian soldiers. Despite constant rumours though, there is no confirmation so far if and how they have directly partaken in the hostilities. The presence of the FIB is surprising insofar as the brigade is, despite deployment to be completed in the coming days, not yet operational. So far, the Tanzanian contingent has arrived with most of its equipment, the South African part with some of its equipment while the Malawian contingent and its equipment are on their way, so too the remaining South African materials. Monday afternoon, the Rwandan Ministry of Defense denounced shelling into their territory, two bombs had fallen in Rubavu (ex-Gisenyi) district.

This for the actual war. Gomatracien citizens are reported to have cheered towards FARDC troops (who in their eyes might finally have taken on serious combat against M23). M23 has denied this. Around town, various waves of displacement are reported as an immediate consequence to the clashes. Concrete reports exist of Sake area and Munigi/Kibati area.

Another, less lethal but certainly as confusing conflict has taken place in the media, particularly on twitter: Business as usual, the strong social media front around M23 and the Rwandan side were not tired to denounce collaboration between FARDC, FDLR, the Tanzanian FIB elements (part of that “axis of evil since Kikwete’s remarks on FDLR), or other pro-government militia to engage in anti-Tutsi warfare and intrusions into Rwandan territory. The considerably weaker pro-government communication armada (much more supported by foreign observers than its counterpart) denied all such claims and put forward apparent M23 human rights violations and an imminent attack to Goma, backed up by Rwandan troops (a media report even indicates they had crosses the border disguised in “pagne”). While objectivity is hard and truth almost impossible (at least in real time) a good start is here to take a median of the divergent accusations and statements as a path to follow. In that regard it also seems questionable when DRC’s communication minister Mende talks about 130 M23 casualties while FARDC “only” suffered 5-10.

An outlook for the coming days is hard to give. Although the FIB was present it does not seem they would invite themselves into heavy fighting before they become operational (which could happen in 2, 4, or 6 weeks – depending on logistics and tactical planning). However, the new Brazilian force commander’s rhetorics are remarkably strong as he announced that all types of arms bearers not FARDC, PNC, or other state agents will be considered as targets. If seriously meant, this could endorse the major paradigm change the FIB was meant to be. On the other side, the SRSG vacancy until Martin Kobler’s arrival in August – currently DSRSG and humanitarian coordinator (sic!) Moustapha Soumaré acts as an interim carries uncertainty for this approach to be pursued in the long run.

FARDC appears to be in a position of strength seldom experienced since M23’s rise over a year ago (possibly due to the fact that most good-quality troops are concentrated around Goma now) and might want to pursue offensive operations. On the other side, they might also want to wait for FIB to effectively begin its work. M23 has experienced its first forced retreat from a position in months. Despite rumours about low morale among troops, mass defections, and serious illness of Sultani Makenga (none of them might be fully wrong but if all were true M23 would probably not even exist anymore – so this has to be taken with a pinch of salt) M23 still numbers around 2000 troops which dispose over better discipline and training as random FARDC units. Will today’s battalion regroup with others currently in Rumangabo and Bunagana, which means an operational risk to lose lots of territory, a combined M23 force will pose much more challenges to FARDC and/or FIB.

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