Kinshasa – The United Nations forces and the Congolese army
attacked rebel positions with helicopter gunships, armoured personnel carriers
and a phalanx of ground troops Wednesday, ramping up the UN's engagement in the
latest rebellion to roil this country's tormented east.
The fighting was some of the fiercest in the week since the
newly created UN intervention brigade went on the offensive, and one Tanzanian
peacekeeper was killed after the rebels aimed artillery fire at their position,
the UN said in a statement. Seven other troops were also wounded, the UN spokesperson
Farhan Haq said.
"I am outraged by today's killing of a United Nations
peacekeeper from Tanzania by the M23," said Martin Kobler, the special
representative of the secretary-general in Congo, who heads the peacekeeping
mission. "He sacrificed his life to protect civilians in Goma."
The fighting is taking place 15km from the provincial
capital of Goma, a city home to nearly one million people that was briefly
captured by the M23 rebels late last year.
The UN involvement in the latest flare-up of violence is in
sharp contrast to November, when the UN peacekeeping mission, known as Monusco,
stood by as the rebels overtook Goma because their mandate was only to protect
The stepped-up UN intervention brigade, created by the
Security Council in March, is authorised to take the offensive against the
"It's already changing the equation. For now, I would
shy away from calling it a game changer. It's certainly unprecedented not only
for DRC, but for peacekeeping itself and the UN at large," said Timo
Mueller, a Goma-based researcher with the Enough Project, an advocacy group
active in eastern DRC.
Martin Nesirky, spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon, said in a statement that Ban condemned the killing of the
Tanzanian and violence against the UN peacekeepers generally.
"The Secretary-General deplores in the strongest terms
the killing and wounding of the UN peacekeepers," the statement reads.
Even as forces pounded the rebels, the UN officials
continued to send mixed messages about the extent of their involvement,
repeatedly saying they were merely "backing" or
"supporting" the Congolese military, rather than leading the
"The main engagement is by the [Congolese]
forces," said Siphiwe Dlamini, a spokesperson for the South African
military, which contributed troops to the brigade. "We are retaliating and
going on the offensive."
Lieutenant Colonel Felix Basse, the military spokesperson
for the UN peacekeeping mission, also emphasised that the UN forces were
fighting alongside the Congolese army.
However, the president of the M23 rebel movement, Bertrand
Bisimwa, who spoke by telephone, said the UN's intervention brigade was on the
frontline of Wednesday's fighting.
"It was the UN that was shooting directly at us, from
their helicopters. It's the Tanzanian and South African [United Nations] troops
that are on the frontline. It's them that we see first," he said.
As the UN mission takes its strongest steps yet to protect
Congolese civilians, observers note the intervention brigade faces high
expectations. It is already facing backlash from residents who say their
heightened efforts still aren't enough to protect civilians from an onslaught
of mortar fire.
Outburst of frustration
Last weekend, scores of Goma residents took to the streets
in anger after a barrage of mortar shells rained down on residential neighbourhoods
and killed several civilians. A UN car was set ablaze, and in the melee two
protesters were killed.
"Given this outburst of frustration during these
demonstrations, Monusco might feel pressured to take on M23 and be sucked into
an active conflict, into active warfare," Mueller said. "There might
be a momentum building up where Monusco has to prove its legitimacy and its
effectiveness and has to show the population that it's actually doing
In a recent open letter, the charity Medecins Sans
Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, also expressed concern about the
mission's simultaneous mandate to "aid, protect and fight" in DRC.
The UN vigorously defended its mandate, saying it could not "fold our arms
and allow armed groups to kill the population".
In addition to seven UN troops wounded on Wednesday, three
others already have sustained injuries since the UN brigade began directly
engaging rebels last week. One South African and two Tanzanians were hit by
shrapnel Saturday, South Africa's military said in a statement on Wednesday.
Angelo Izama, a Uganda-based analyst who runs a regional
security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote, cautions though that failure to
unseat the M23 from their current strongholds overlooking Goma would be a
psychological blow to the Congolese military and its UN allies.
He said it was highly unlikely that the UN brigade would
sustain the offensive if more and more of its troops were killed or wounded in
"If they come under sustained attack, the UN will have
no appetite for war," he said. "They will call time out."