KINSHASA Rebels in Congo were on the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma on Sunday after pushing back U.N. peacekeepers and government troops, but a spokesman for the M23 rebels said they did not plan to take the city.
In four days of battles, the rebels have advanced closer than at any time in their eight-month-old uprising to Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu and home to the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo.
M23 spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama said rebel fighters had advanced to within 2 km of Goma.
"We're not going to take the airport, we are responding to an attack by the army... We're just doing this to break the capacity of the FARDC (Congolese army)," Kazarama said.
Colonel Olivier Hamuli, a spokesman for the Congolese army, spoke to Reuters briefly by telephone before the line was cut.
"There is combat about five kilometres from the airport," he said.
The United Nations has about 6,700 peacekeeping forces in North Kivu, with some 1,400 troops in Goma and the surrounding area. The force has a mandate to protect civilians.
More than three quarters of a million people have fled their homes since the latest fighting in eastern Congo erupted in April when a group of soldiers mutinied to form the M23 group.
On Saturday, U.N. helicopters were dispatched to strafe rebel positions, but insurgents have continued to gain ground in the fresh round of fighting which the United Nations says has forced civilians to flee.
Rebels on Sunday said they were responding to an early morning assault by government forces. No casualty figures were given by either side.
Goma, on the Rwandan border, is home to up to a million people, including hundreds of thousands displaced by conflict. M23 rebels have repeatedly said they do not intend to capture the city.
The rebels deserted government ranks earlier this year, accusing Kinshasa of failing to respect a 2009 peace deal which ended a previous rebellion in North Kivu and integrated insurgents into the national army.
Congo's government and U.N. investigators have accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels in eastern Congo.
While Rwanda's army has repeatedly sent soldiers into Congo during nearly two decades of conflict in Africa's Great Lakes region, the Rwandan government has strongly denied supporting the M23 in the latest rebellion.
The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters on Saturday that the M23 rebels had sophisticated equipment, including night vision capacity and 120 mm mortars.
More than 5 million people are estimated to have died from violence, hunger and disease in wars in Congo since 1998, which would make it the deadliest conflict since World War Two.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Rosalind Russell)