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Residents of Bambo in Rutshuru territory, flee as the M23 attacked the town on Oct. 26. The M23 has captured swathes of territory in North Kivu province since 2021, forcing more than a million people to flee.ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP/Getty Images

Canadian peacekeepers are “key contributors” in a United Nations military plan to defend the Congolese city of Goma from a potentially disastrous attack by the Rwandan-backed M23 rebel militia, federal officials say.

In defiance of a ceasefire agreement, the insurgent militia has pushed closer to Goma in recent days, advancing into villages within 35 kilometres of the city. The Congolese military deployed warplanes to attack the rebels on Thursday in an attempt to force them back.

The M23 rebels have reportedly moved into the hills surrounding the town of Saké, the gateway to Goma and the last remaining town on the road to the eastern city.

Goma is considered strategically important because it is the capital of North Kivu province, the regional headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force, a key mineral trading hub and one of the biggest cities in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The M23 militia, officially the March 23 Movement, captured Goma briefly in 2012. It was temporarily defeated by a UN force a few months later, but revived its forces last year and has captured a large swath of territory in eastern Congo since then. It has massacred hundreds of civilians, triggering a humanitarian disaster in the region and forcing about a million Congolese to flee their homes, according to reports by UN agencies and human rights groups.

Rwanda has denied any role in the conflict, but detailed reports by UN experts have documented Rwanda’s extensive support for M23, including the provision of military supplies, weapons, training and the deployment of Rwandan troops across the border into eastern Congo. The evidence in the reports has included photos, satellite images and eyewitness accounts.

Congo’s military, weakened by corruption and poor discipline, has proven unable to stop M23′s advance. The government recruited help from a force of East African troops, but later complained that the East Africans were unwilling to clash with M23. The last remaining East African troops left Goma last week.

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To replace the East Africans, the Congolese government is relying on a new force from Southern Africa, including troops who began arriving in Goma this week. The South Africans have an “offensive mandate” to pursue M23 forces, according to local media, quoting Congolese military officers.

The government has also recruited hundreds of private military contractors from Burundi and Romania, along with a volunteer force of armed Congolese civilians known as the Wazalendo (“the patriots”) who are battling against M23.

But the UN peacekeeping force, known as MONUSCO, remains the largest military unit in Goma, despite official plans to withdraw it from Congo over the next 12 months. For weeks, it has been mapping out the details for the defence of Goma, with assistance from the nine Canadian Armed Forces officers who serve in the UN force. The operation has been codenamed Operation SPRINGBOK.

“In their staff officer positions within the MONUSCO headquarters, CAF members are playing a key role in planning and execution of Operation SPRINGBOK,” said Captain Jason Rheubottom, a spokesperson for the Canadian Armed Forces.

“This included leading joint planning sessions within MONUSCO Force HQ staff, producing briefing materials, developing contingencies, joint logistical planning, enabling operational and tactical liaison with Government of DRC security forces and authorities, and overseeing deployment of MONUSCO troops to forward positions,” he told The Globe and Mail.

The Canadian officers are “key contributors to the planning and conduct” of the operation, in response to increased fighting between M23 and the Congolese army in the area surrounding Goma, Capt. Rheubottom said.

He described it as “a joint operation to defend the city along multiple axes, to block any actions threatening the local population or the thousands of vulnerable IDPs [internally displaced persons] who have congregated in camps on the outskirts of the city.”

Despite the small size of the Canadian contingent in Congo, it is the second-largest of Canada’s handful of remaining units in UN peacekeeping forces, and the Canadians hold influence as senior staff officers in the MONUSCO headquarters.

Walter Dorn, a peacekeeping expert and professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, said Canada is allowing other countries to do the “heavy lifting” and risky tasks in Goma. But its peacekeeping officers are still doing “important work” to protect the city, he told The Globe.

A new report to the UN Security Council this month, written by the UN Group of Experts on Congo and obtained by The Globe on Friday, warns that M23′s military objective is to seize control of both Goma and Bukavu, the two biggest cities in eastern Congo.

The UN experts said they had obtained further evidence – including aerial footage and photos – of direct intervention in eastern Congo by the Rwandan military in support of the M23 militia.

Rwanda provided military training to M23 this year and has sent troops from five different Rwandan battalions across the border into eastern Congo since October to help the rebel militia, the report said.

The M23 offensive has triggered escalating tensions between Congo and Rwanda in recent weeks. Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, who holds a large lead over his rivals in partial results of Congo’s national election this month, has threatened to declare war on Rwanda if the M23 offensive continues.

Congo’s government was further angered when M23 leaders attended a news conference in Kenya this month to announce a political alliance of Congolese rebel groups and opposition politicians, including Corneille Nangaa, a former Congo election commission chief.

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