Goma — Congolese troops backed by United Nations soldiers suffered heavy casualties over the weekend, a doctor near the front line said, as they fought to push back rebels who remained entrenched Monday just north of the provincial capital of Goma.
Dr. Isaac Warwanamiza told The Associated Press he had seen 82 bodies since early Sunday, 23 of whom he claimed were government soldiers, the highest death toll reported since hostilities broke out last week.
Medical services were struggling to cope with the scale of the casualties among government troops and the M23 fighters who launched their rebellion last year and briefly overtook Goma in November, Warwanamiza said.
"I'm overwhelmed by what I've seen: bodies blown apart, arms and feet here and there," he said, speaking by phone from a hospital north of Goma.
Eight of the dead had no uniforms, 23 were government troops and the rest were M23 rebels, the doctor added.
The total of wounded Congolese troops at the military hospital is 720, according to army chaplain Lea Masika.
The front line of fighting is only 9 miles (15 kilometers) north of Goma, a key center in eastern Congo that borders Rwanda. The M23 rebels briefly held the strategic city of 1 million in November last year and then retreated a few miles away. Congolese and U.N. troops have been battling to dislodge rebels from heights overlooking the city since Wednesday.
Observers estimate that Congolese forces have advanced less than a mile (about 2 kilometers) since Wednesday and have yet to achieve their immediate objective — cutting off M23 from a border crossing where the rebel group is believed to get supplies from neighboring Rwanda.
The Congolese are fighting with the help of a new United Nations intervention brigade, which was created after the M23 rebels invaded and briefly held the city of Goma last year.
In a humiliating blow to both Congo and the international community, the rebels marched directly past U.N. peacekeepers stationed at the gates of this city. The peacekeepers could not stop them, because their mandate at the time was limited to protecting civilians.
The recent fighting is the first time that the new U.N. intervention force has fought against the M23 rebels.
On Monday, the head of the United Nations mission in Congo, Martin Kobler, visited two hospitals in the country's east where he paid his respects to wounded government and U.N. soldiers, hailing them as "heroes fighting to restore peace," a U.N.-backed radio station reported.
Radio Okapi identified the wounded peacekeepers as two South Africans and a Tanzanian.
The most recent fighting broke out Wednesday after weeks of relative calm. U.N. troops along with Congolese troops shelled rebel positions on Thursday, marking the first time the U.N. brigade had done so since it was created in March.
The M23 has been pounding Goma from their positions just to the north of the strategic city, killing civilians. By Saturday, scores of angry residents took to the streets in protest, claiming that the U.N. had not done enough to protect them. A U.N. car was set on fire, and in the melee two protesters were killed. The population claims the U.N. opened fire on the mob, but the President of Uruguay Jose Mujica said in a statement over the weekend that Uruguayan peacekeepers had only fired rubber bullets to control the crowd.
Mujica said that it was Congolese police who had used live ammunition.
On Monday, the Congolese government called for an investigation into the deaths of the civilians. Minister of the Interior Richard Muyej told The Associated Press: "We are absolutely in agreement that a joint commission needs to be created (to investigate what happened.)"
The M23 is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009. Many of the movement's commanders are veterans of previous rebellions backed by Rwanda, which vigorously denies allegations that it has been supporting and reinforcing the M23.
Negotiations between the rebels and the Congolese government started in March in neighboring Uganda but the talks have frequently stalled and appear to have made little progress.
In Washington, the United States State Department condemned the actions of the M23, calling on the rebel group to immediately cease hostilities, disarm and disband. The U.S. also suggested that Rwanda is assisting the rebels.
"We urgently call on (Congolese) and Rwandan governments to exercise restraint to prevent military escalation of the conflict or any action that puts civilians at risk," the statement said. "We reiterate our call for Rwanda to cease any and all support to the M23."
Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Kinshasa, Congo.