The M23 rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has pushed into fresh territory, officials said, after a regional bloc issued a call to lay down arms.
A resurgent group mostly drawn from Congolese Tutsis, the M23 has swept across North Kivu province, triggering a humanitarian crisis and a showdown between the DRC and Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of supporting the rebels.
In recent weeks, fighters have been edging closer towards Goma, an important commercial hub of one million people on the border with Rwanda.
But local residents and administrative officials told AFP that the armed group had also begun a push westwards into Masisi territory.
“The rebels are here,” a resident of Tongo, a town in wildlife haven Virunga National Park, which lies on the road leading to Masisi territory, said on Thursday.
ALSO READ: 18 killed in western DR Congo clashes – government
An official in the local administration, who requested anonymity, also told AFP late Wednesday that M23 fighters had entered his office.
M23 fighters and Congolese troops were clashing this week in Kibumba, which is just 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Goma.
A security official, who declined to be named, said Thursday the M23 now controlled the settlement.
The DRC’s army has yet to communicate officially about the rebel advance.
On Wednesday, the head of the newly created East African Community (EAC) military force in eastern DR Congo, Jeff Nyagah, said that rebels that must pursue political negotiations and disarm.
“Those who fail or refuse to voluntarily disarm, then we’ll go for them,” the Kenyan general warned.
Nyagah also vowed that the EAC force would protect Goma.
ALSO READ: Two dead as UN peacekeepers open fire in east DR Congo
Despite official denials from Kigali, an unpublished report for the United Nations seen by AFP in August pointed to Rwandan involvement with the M23.
The report also said the M23 plans to capture Goma in order to extract political concessions from the government in Kinshasa.
The M23 first leapt to prominence in 2012 when it captured Goma, before being driven out and going to ground.
But the rebel group re-emerged late last year, claiming that the DRC had failed to honour a pledge to integrate its fighters into the army, among other grievances.