DR Congo fighting leaves 19 dead ahead of UN chief visit

A fresh bout of fighting between army and rebel forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has left 19 dead, the government said Tuesday, on the eve of a visit by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Mortar fire rang out for a second day north of the regional hub Goma after the first clashes in six months between the M23 rebellion that briefly seized the city in November and government troops broke out on Monday.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende told journalists that Monday's fighting had left 15 rebels dead and 21 injured, while four soldiers were killed and six injured.

M23 military spokesman Vianney Kazarama rejected the figures provided by Kinshasa however and said only two loyalist troops were wounded and two rebels wounded.

During his visit, Ban will be accompanied by the World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, UN peacekeeping force chief Herve Ladsous and Mary Robinson who is the UN special envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region.

The visit comes after a UN-brokered accord was signed by 11 African heads of state on February 24 who vowed not to interfere in the affairs of their neighbours.

"The latest clashes in the east of the DRC near Goma emphasise yet again the urgency of implementing the agreement," Ban said during a visit to Mozambique.

Mende said that fighting continued Tuesday in the same area, 12 kilometres (seven miles) north of Goma, adding the rebel assault was carefully planned and was "without doubt aimed at dissuading, even preventing, the deployment of the United Nations special intervention brigade."

The latest fighting comes a week after the first troops from the UN's first ever peacekeeping force with an offensive mandate were deployed.

The new brigade, which will include troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi, is expected to initially focus on neutralising the M23.

One of the group's main founders is Bosco Ntaganda, an ex-general in the Congolese military born in Rwanda and nicknamed "the Terminator", awaits trial at the International Criminal Court on several charges, including murder, rape and pillaging.

"M23 and those who support it in the region deliberately carried out this attack to delay the advent of peace" in the mineral-rich region, said Mende.

He repeated accusations that M23 was receiving help from abroad, without naming the countries.

"Heavy weaponry and several cases of ammunition from the exterior have been recovered in two enemy positions which have fallen under the control of the Congolese army."

Ban's tour will take him to the capitals Rwanda and Uganda which have been accused by both Kinshasa and the UN of backing M23, an allegation the two neighbouring countries deny.

In a second day of fighting, Colonel Olivier Hamuli, spokesman for the Congolese army in North Kivu province, said that M23 forces had attacked their positions in the same zone as on Monday.

"We're keeping a fierce response in store for them," Hamuli added.

A Western military expert said M23 was fighting with mortars and armoured vehicles captured from government troops last November. The army was using multiple-barrel cannons, he added.

Despite the latest fighting, the M23 has reaffirmed its commitment to peace talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

These talks started under regional pressure for a peace deal following the withdrawal of M23 troops from Goma in December, after they occupied the city for 10 days.

The process is now stalled.

Ban said from Mozambique that the flare-up in the DRC meant that the deployment of a UN military taskforce with a tough mandate to attack rebel forces should be sped up.

"Considering what has happened I think we must expedite the deployment so they will be fully responsible as soon as possible," Ban said in the wake of the arrival of the first batch of troops last week.

M23 rebels in April vowed to retaliate if attacked by UN troops after the UN Security Council approved the creation of the 2,500-strong force.