Split in DR Congo rebel ranks leads to clashes

Fighting has broken out in the unstable east of the Democratic Republic of Congo between rival factions of the M23 rebel movement after the dismissal of the group's political leader, rebel and Congolese military sources said Friday.

The clashes began on Thursday in the Rutshuru region, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. Supporters of Jean-Marie Runiga, the ousted political chief of M23, were battling those loyal to the movement's military leader, Sultani Makenga, the sources said.

No casualty toll was available in the morning, but an officer in the March 23 movement (M23) said that clashes in the night were "violent", particularly in the Kibumba region.

Old rivalries between Makenga and Runiga have deepened since 11 countries on February 24 signed a UN-brokered framework accord for peace in the strife-torn east of DR Congo, after talks in Addis Ababa.

Several military sources said that Runiga wanted to resume an armed offensive against Congolese troops, while Makenga was in favour of stabilising the region and peace. Initial clashes at the start of the week claimed about 10 lives.

Makenga's forces are based at Bunagana, on the border with Uganda, while Rugani's men are based in Kibumba, near Goma, where they are said to have been joined by supporters of rebel General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

When the rebel military command stripped Runiga of his post on Wednesday, M23's military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama told AFP that he had been "giving financial support" to Ntaganda. He was also accused of embezzling funds.

The fighting within M23, which first defected from the army last year and took up arms on the grounds that a 2009 peace deal had not been fully implemented by the Kinshasa government, came as the army clashed further west in North Kivu with another militia.

Since Wednesday morning, troops have battled an armed local force, the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS). According to the UN mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO), 36 people were killed, including 10 civilians, in the sector on the edge of the Masisi region, near Kitchanga.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 civilians have taken refuge "around the MONUSCO" base in Kitchanga, UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said on Thursday.

The North and South Kivu provinces are home to many rebel and militia groups seeking a part in the control of the region's considerable mineral wealth. The United Nations accuses Rwanda and Uganda of backing M23, an allegation the two neighbouring countries deny.

Since M23 deserters rebelled almost a year ago, the Congolese army has concentrated on fighting them, which has enabled other armed movements to proliferate and try to find a role in potential negotiations on peace in the east and the restructuring of the armed forces.