GOMA, Congo (AP) — More than 3,000 new military recruits began training Monday as the Congolese army steps up its fight against the M23 rebels that it alleges are backed by neighboring Rwanda.
The Rwandan government, which has repeatedly denied supporting M23, said that a Congolese fighter plane had “violated Rwandan airspace” by landing briefly at Rubavu airport. Congo later said that the unarmed aircraft had flown accidentally into Rwandan airspace.
The M23 rebels rose to prominence more than a decade ago when they seized Goma, the largest city in Congo’s east that sits along the border with Rwanda. After a peace deal, many of M23′s fighters were integrated into the national military. But then a year ago, the group re-emerged, saying the government had failed to live up to its decade-long promises.
Tensions have mounted as the M23 rebels have advanced in recent weeks, seizing several key towns including Kiwanja. Congo’s government has blamed Rwanda and expelled the Rwandan ambassador about a week ago.
Representatives from the two countries met over the weekend in Angola where they agreed to “maintain dialogue.” Other peace talks are expected to resume in Kenya next week. However, Congolese government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said representatives of M23 will not be allowed to take part unless conditions are met.
“The M23 must withdraw from occupied positions before being reintegrated into the process like other armed groups,” he told journalists over the weekend.
In Goma on Monday, North Kivu military spokesman Lt. Gen. Guillaume Djike Kaiko said more than 3,000 people had stepped forward to join the military’s efforts against M23.
Among them was Clarisse Mahamba, a 19-year-old who said she’s been interested in the military since childhood.
“I see that things are not going well in our country,” she told The Associated Press. “I saw the Rwandans coming to invade us because I was in Rumangabo. I saw how our soldiers were suffering, I fled and that’s why I have also joined the military.”
Edison Butsira, 27, has a college degree in economics but said he wants to follow the example set by young Ukrainians who took up arms to defend their country.
“Young people decided to abandon their activities — they left to enlist in their army to fight because Ukraine was invaded,” Butsira told AP. “Here I also gave up my job and I joined my friends to go fight.”
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi also has called on his citizens to mobilize against “Rwandan aggression” in Rutshuru territory.
“We must be aware that no one but ourselves will save our nation and that this requires from each of us a mobilization all around,” he said on RTNC radio.
Associated Press writer Jean-Yves Kamale in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed.