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Pope Francis attends a meeting with representatives from charities, during his apostolic journey, at the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo on Feb. 1.YARA NARDI/Reuters

Even as Pope Francis condemned the “murderous, illegal exploitation” of Congo’s natural wealth that has fuelled warfare in the east of the country, heavy fighting was erupting again between the Congolese army and a Rwandan-backed militia group in the mineral-rich region.

The army battled on Wednesday to recapture the strategic town of Kitshanga, seized by the Rwanda-supported M23 rebel group last week. More than 122,000 people were forced to flee their homes within the space of a day when M23 attacked the town and surrounding area, according to Save the Children, a humanitarian group. Most of the displaced are children who are “incredibly vulnerable to abuse,” the group warned.

Pope Francis, on his first visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spoke to victims of the eastern conflict on Wednesday and denounced the “internal and external organizations” that “orchestrate war” in the country to plunder its resources.

“It is, above all, a war unleashed by an insatiable greed for raw materials and money that fuels a weaponized economy and requires instability and corruption,” he told the war survivors in an emotional meeting.

Francis did not single out any countries or militia forces by name, but it is well-documented that Rwanda and Uganda have intervened in eastern Congo for many years, often by providing weapons to proxy forces such as M23. Militia groups and army units have taken control of many mines in the region, often smuggling their minerals across the borders to Rwanda and Uganda for quick profits.

At the Vatican embassy in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, the Pope met four victims of the brutal violence in the east, who described atrocities that included mutilation, kidnapping, rape and sex slavery by some of the many militia groups in the region.

Francis had been scheduled to visit Goma, a regional capital in eastern Congo, but the journey was cancelled after the fighting grew worse. More than half a million people have been forced to flee their homes over the past year because of the conflict, many for the second or third time.

Under ceasefire agreements, M23 was obliged to withdraw from its newly captured towns and villages. But it has refused to withdraw from most of its seized territory and has instead continued to attack new targets.

Former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is mediating among the combatants as a peace envoy, warned on Tuesday that the conflict is deteriorating as the fighting and killing escalate. He expressed “deep concern” at the “serious violation” of the ceasefire agreements.

The latest fighting in Kitshanga, a town of about 80,000 people, has left about 90 per cent of the town empty, according to a report on Wednesday by an independent radio network, Radio Okapi. Battles were continuing in several other places in the region, it said.

The conflict has heightened tensions between the governments of Congo and Rwanda, sparking fears of a broader war.

Last week, in a dangerous escalation, Rwanda fired a missile at a Congolese fighter jet as it returned to Goma after conducting operations in the battle for Kitshanga. The jet was damaged but managed to land without injury to the pilot, although debris fell onto the city.

Rwanda said it fired at the jet because it had strayed into Rwandan territory – a claim denied by Congo’s government. Goma’s airport is close to the Rwandan border, creating the constant risk that military aircraft could cross the border inadvertently.

“War between Rwanda and the DRC seems improbable but cannot be entirely discounted,” the International Crisis Group said in a report last week.

The two governments are “using belligerent language that channels public sentiment but also seems intended to prepare the populations for aggressive action,” the research group said.

The M23 capture of Kitshanga “has again raised fears that the rebels will asphyxiate the provincial capital [Goma] by occupying its surrounds to the north and west,” it said.

Rwanda has denied that it supports M23, but there is a “growing body of evidence” to link it to the militia group, the Crisis Group said.