The M23 rebels have seized the strategic town of Kitshanga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after days of fierce fighting, drawing condemnation from the UN.
The DRC’s army on Friday confirmed its forces withdrew, calling it a tactical move to protect civilians in the face of a renewed offensive by the rebel fighters.
“We have tactically withdrawn from the city in order to attract these genocidal forces deep into the city and avoid the worst for our people in Kitshanga,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Ndjike, spokesman for the military governor of North Kivu.
“We are making every effort to dislodge this enemy,” he told the AFP news agency.
The rebels took control of Kitshanga late on Thursday after capturing several villages on the road linking the town of about 60,000 people to the provincial capital Goma about 90 kilometres (55 miles) apart.
Videos on social media appeared to show fighters in the M23 group celebrating and claiming they had captured the town. Al Jazeera could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos.
M23′s political spokesman, Lawrence Kanyuka, in a statement on Thursday accused government troops of attacking civilians in Kitchanga and elsewhere, and said the rebel group was “obliged to intervene and stop another genocide”.
“We have just been through the war in Kitchanga, we saw M23 killing people, we were afraid, that’s why we fled so we wouldn’t die, too,” Angelique Mukeshimana told The Associated Press news agency. The mother of four went to a makeshift displacement site on the outskirts of Goma.
“For months, M23 have been moving towards Kitshanga and Masisi as they fight Congo army, which is widely reported to be backed by militias. Though Congo has denied it,” Al Jazeera’s Malcom Webb said reporting from the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
“Sources in the Congo army said that two days ago battalion of soldiers crossed from Rwanda to reinforce M23. That helped the rebels in taking control of Kitshanga. And that means that M23 now control the road from Kitshanga to Goma.”