Three Democratic Republic of Congo soldiers died on Monday while repelling an attack in the eastern Beni region by ADF Ugandan Islamist rebels, who are suspected of murdering 14 UN peacekeepers last month.
The army had on Saturday announced an offensive against the Allied Democratic Forces, one of a number of armed groups acting in North Kivu and South Kivu — the two provinces which border Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
“The ADF attacked our position in Muzambay at 4:00 am (0200 GMT),” said army spokesman Captain Mak Hazukay.
“We have listed five wounded, three of them in a serious condition,” he said.
But a witness said he saw the corpses of three soldiers in the morgue of Beni’s general hospital. He saw four other troops being treated for wounds at the same facility.
Another source reported seeing an army ambulance transporting two bodies and five wounded soldiers to hospital.
– Ugandan support –
“The firing started very early while we were still sleeping but stopped around 6:30 am,” said Aimee Makinda, the wife of a soldier whose house is located near the site of the clashes.
An AFP correspondent in Beni reported hearing heavy and light weapons fire for two and a half hours from 4:00 am.
Gilbert Kambale, who heads a local community organisation, said the ADF had made an “incursion” into Beni.
Present in DR Congo since 1995, the ADF was created by Muslim radicals to oppose Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s rule.
On Sunday, Museveni said Ugandan forces — who claim to have killed 100 ADF fighters in air strikes in eastern DRC last month — would support Kinshasa’s offensive “where necessary,” but did not go into detail.
– No UN involvement –
Congolese authorities and the UN mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, accuse the ADF of killing more than 700 civilians as well as combatants in the Beni region since 2014.
The group also stands accused of killing 14 UN peacekeepers in eastern DR Congo last month, the biggest single loss of peacekeepers in nearly a quarter of a century.
A UN source revealed that the DRC armed forces had launched their offensive without the involvement of MONUSCO, which had vowed to crack down on the ADF after the December ambush.
“They consider us to be a backup force. If we are not involved in planning the attack, we don’t join in,” the source said.
The fighting in eastern DR Congo is part of a larger mosaic of disorder and violence in the sprawling, volatile country.
Another troublespot is the vast central region of Kasai, where the death of a rebellious tribal chief in August 2016 unleashed clashes with government forces that according to UN figures have led to more than 3,000 deaths and displaced 1.4 million people.
Mineral-rich but mired in poverty and corruption, the country is led by President Joseph Kabila who has been in power since 2001, when he succeeded his assassinated father at the age of 29.
Kabila’s constitutional term in office expired in December 2016, but he stayed on — a move that stoked a bloody spiral of violence.
Under an agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic church, he was allowed to stay in office provided new elections were held in 2017. The date has since been postponed to December 23, 2018.