Rebels in Eastern Congo have repelled a counter attack by government forces and pushed further into the vast central African nation following their capture of the strategic city of Goma.
The chaos in the Congolese army was underlined when its chief of staff was suspended today in response to a UN report that accused him of running a criminal network selling arms to many of the same rebel groups now fighting the government.
The M23 group, which began as an army munity seven months ago, has vowed to march on the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, half a continent away in Kinshasa, if its demands for direct talks are not met.
Meanwhile hopes that the mutineers, who are thought to number fewer than 2,000 troops could be contained were dashed as they moved further into North Kivu province.
The presidents of DR Congo and Rwanda – which is accused in the same UN report of running the M23 through its defence ministry – are due to meet today (Saturday) for fresh talks to try and resolve the crisis.
Congo's Joseph Kabila and Rwanda's Paul Kagame met several times in the last week in the Ugandan capital, Kampala as the rebels have continued to capture more territory around Goma.
After days of disorderly retreat the Congolese army, the FARDC, put up a fight over the town of Sake, 40 kilometres beyond Goma, briefly claiming it had retaken it from the rebels of M23. However, the handful of residents that remained in Sake said that despite heavy fighting the rebels had never relinquished control. As many as 10,000 civilians were reported to be on the road out of Sake in a bid to escape the fighting.
The Associated Press spoke to a lone father who returned today to his empty house in the town. He was separated from his four children – the youngest of whom is just 2 years old – when the shooting started. "We heard shots from the hills," said Timothe Mashamba. "We fled, but now I have returned. I lost my four children when we fled and haven't found them. I am waiting for them here. I can't leave. They won't know where to find me."
Aid groups estimate that as many as 365,000 civilians have been displaced from their homes or refugee camps since fighting began earlier this year.
General Gabriel Amisi has been suspended from his post as army chief after a report by the UN panel of experts accused him of selling arms and ammunition to rebel groups, who are accused of a litany of war crimes from mass rape to the recruitment of child soldiers. The report alleges that the general ran a smuggling network that delivered assault rifles and ammunition to several groups, at least two of which have been occasional allies of M23.
The restive east of Congo is blighted by armed groups including three foreign militias; four domestic rebel forces and a host of Mai Mai local self defence forces. Many of the groups survive by preying on the local populations and profiting from conflict minerals. Attempts to use the national army, the FARDC, to impose order on North and South Kivu have been totally undermined by endemic corruption in its ranks. The FARDC reportedly looted areas of Goma as it fled the rebel advance last week.
Both Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of backing M23 – whose leaders hail from the same ethnic group as Rwanda's President Kagame – in an extensive dossier delivered to the UN Security Council. Rwanda's foreign allies, including the UK which is a major donor have changed tack in recent days, directly criticising the donor darling for its role in the rebellion.