Two Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers, seven M23 rebels and one Congolese soldier have reportedly died in skirmishes in east Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) that erupted on Monday.
“It is true,” Uganda’s Defence and Military spokesman, Brig Felix Kulayigye, said when asked about the killing and injury of UPDF soldiers.
The United Nations Peace Mission in Congo, better known by the acronym Monusco, lost eight personnel after their response helicopter to the conflict zone came down and crashed.
The Ugandan military’s borderline 25th and 35th battalions, which swung into action following dramatic influx of Congolese refugees, reportedly captured more than a dozen M23 fighter.
Uganda is to hand over the prisoners of war, one of whom security and intelligence officials identified as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Rwandan army, to the Kinshasa government that is conducting a separate military operation to subdue subversive elements in the expansive eastern DR Congo.
We could not independently confirm the above claim, but the Congolese government this week accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels, an allegation Kigali vehemently denies.
Our interviews with multiple security and intelligence officers, both in Uganda and Congo, have provided a hitherto clearer picture of how the attack by M23 rebels took the Congolese army, also known as FADRC, by surprise, and they overran the army base in Bunagana, pushing the fleeing soldiers to the no-man’s land at Uganda frontier.
This prompted UPDF forces at the border to strike back, and the counter-offensive overwhelmed the insurgents, who fled towards Sabinyo and Chanzu-Runyoni and abandoned the Congolese base they had captured.
The Ugandan army, fighting alongside Congolese counterparts, recovered nine sub-machine guns, one PK machine gun, one rocket-propelled grenade and a pair of military fatigue with insignia similar to that of Rwandan Defence Forces.
UPDF lost one gun, a senior official said, during the four-hour fighting that started at mid-day.
The joint forces managed to retake the FADRC base that M23 rebels had overrun.
The Congolese forces and M23 rebels started fighting in the area of Tshanzu and Runyoni, western DR Congo near Bunagana border, which has led to an influx of thousands of refugees in Uganda.
The fighting also halted a multi-billion road construction project that would connect Goma Town in DR Congo to the Uganda border.
M23 rebels overrun the DR Congo Forces’ base near Bunagana border. A UN helicopter was also shot down killing nine personnel including six Pakistanis, two Russians and a Serbian. Both warring parties in eastern DR Congo are accusing the other of shooting down the helicopter.
Two women suspected to be Rwandan nationals, whom the security personnel were suspicious about, were arrested at Bunagana border and turned over to Ugandan police at Mirama customs point.
Brig Kulayigye said he hadn’t received information about their arrest, but could find out.
By yesterday evening, gunshots were still heard across the Uganda border.
In an audio shared on the DR Congo army Twitter handle on Monday, the spokesman of North Kivu, Gen Sylvain Ekenge, accused the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) of supporting armed elements that attacked DR Congo forces.
The governor of Rwanda’s Western Province, Mr Francois Habitegeko, issued a statement and denied the allegations that Rwanda is supporting M23 rebels to carry out attacks against the DR Congo government.
The Commander of Land Forces of the UPDF, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, yesterday tweeted that the M23 issue will quickly be resolved.
“I believe the three great Presidents of our nations will quickly resolve the issue of M23. M23 is really quite a simple problem to solve. It is not as dangerous as ADF (Allied Democratic Forces), for example. It can easily be solved with minimum losses,” he noted.
The M23 rebels have previously attacked DR Congo forces in Kivu provinces, but they were defeated in 2013 and many of the group’s members sought refuge in Uganda.
In November last year, they attacked the same area again. The DR Congo government said they arrested Rwanda Defence Forces’ soldiers among the rebel ranks, an allegation Rwanda denied.
Rwanda Defence Forces issued a statement saying the rebels crossed from Uganda and attacked DR Congo forces. Uganda also denied the allegations.
Following the skirmishes, Kisoro District security committee yesterday declared the no-man’s-land between Uganda and DR Congo as a-no-go area for civilians.
The Kisoro Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Mr Peter Mugisha, said the move is intended to enable the security personnel to clearly monitor the movements of the rebels.
“We have decided that the no man’s land remains a no-go-zone for civilians to allow the security personnel to properly monitor the situation,” Mr Mugisha said yesterday.
Mr Mugisha said calmness had returned to the Bunagana Town on the Ugandan side despite the continued gunfire by the rebels on the DR Congo side.
“There is general calmness at Bunagana border town although the business is dull. This is because of the influx of the Congolese refugees that are currently camped everywhere including shops and hotel verandas since they had refused to go to the refugees’ camp,” he said.
Some of the Congolese refugees told Daily Monitor newspaper yesterday afternoon that they didn’t have food.
About 40,000 Congolese refugees have fled from DR Congo to Uganda.
They have since camped in different places including Bunagana market, Bunagana Primary School, along shop and hotel verandas in Bunagana Town Council. A similar situation is reported in the neighbouring sub-counties of Muramba and Nyakinama in Kisoro District.
DR Congo refugees, who spoke to the Daily Monitor including Hitimana Sebarera, Man Mungu, and Eric Mbaribuke at Nyakabande transit camp in Kisoro District, said they are ready to be relocated to any refugee camp in Uganda because they are tired of fleeing their homes now and then due to armed rebellion in the North Kivu Province.
“I have eight children and a wife. I am tired of fleeing my home crossing into Uganda every time the rebels attack the Congolese government forces in my home area of Bunagana on the Congo side,” Mr Mbaribuke said.
“I am ready to be relocated to any refugee camp in Uganda where I can permanently settle with my family. We shall return to Congo when there is stability,” he said.
Prisoners of war in UPDF custody
1. 2nd Lt Emmanuel Igiraneza, 44, Masisi
2. S/Sgt John Izabayo, 37, Rutshuru
3. Sgt Jean Ndayambaje, 44, Masisi
4. Sgt Augustine Hakizimana, 33, Karere
5. Afrodisi Twizerimana, 35, Irungari
6. Cpl Olivier Munelero, 24, Masisi
7. Pte David Mwisineza, 22, Nuhama
8. Pte Fred Ntagarurwa, 29, Mulenga
9. Pte Jean Kwizerimana, 20, Masisi
10. Pte Pasi Rushemuka, 17, Minembwe
11. Maniriho Sendegeya, 41, Bunagana