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Civilians carry their belongings as they flee after heavy gunfire that raised fears of M23 rebels advancing along a road from Sake, near Goma, in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Feb. 9.DJAFFAR SABITI/Reuters

Thousands of panicking people are fleeing from a strategic town in eastern Congo as a Rwanda-backed militia group pushes closer to sealing off the last road exit from Goma, the provincial capital and biggest city in the region.

Videos on social media showed an exodus of exhausted women and children from the town of Sake, a key crossroads west of Goma. Old people staggered under the weight of mattresses and sacks of belongings, children carried infants on their backs, farmers pulled goats and young men pushed bicycles and wooden scooters overloaded with bags.

The M23 militia was reported to have advanced to within 10 kilometres of Sake by Thursday afternoon, and heavy artillery was reportedly audible in the town. If they capture Sake, they will be able to control Goma’s supply routes and place the city under siege. They already control the road to the north, while the east is blocked by the Rwandan border and the south has only a lake route with limited boat traffic.

A report this week by Human Rights Watch said the M23 rebels had committed a series of war crimes and other atrocities in the region in recent months, including the summary execution of dozens of civilians.

Goma, a city of about 700,000, is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of displaced people in camps and makeshift settlements around its outskirts as a result of the M23 offensive.

More than 500,000 people have been forced from their homes because of M23 attacks over the past year. Overcrowding in poor conditions in the tent cities has put a heavy strain on water and sanitation, leading to cholera outbreaks.

The M23 offensive has come close to triggering outright war between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In late January, Rwanda fired a missile at a Congolese fighter jet as it returned to Goma after conducting operations against the M23 forces. The damaged jet was able to land in Goma, but debris plunged onto the city. Rwanda said the jet had entered Rwanda airspace, but Congo denied it.

By placing Goma under siege, M23 would put heavy pressure on Congo’s government, which so far has refused to negotiate with the rebels. Such negotiations, in turn, would bolster Rwanda’s influence in eastern Congo and enable its proxies to seek concessions in the mineral-rich region.

Congo’s military and a United Nations peacekeeping force have tried to push back the rebels without success. Several ceasefire agreements have required the militia to halt its advance and withdraw from captured towns, but it has refused to do so.

Last Sunday, a sniper bullet – reportedly fired from territory controlled by M23 forces – struck a South African helicopter on UN duty in the region, killing one crew member and injuring another.

An East African peacekeeping force, largely consisting of Kenyan troops, flew into Goma in November to deter any rebel attack on the city. But despite promises of action, the East African force has avoided any direct confrontation with M23, provoking anger from many people in the city. Protesters took to the streets of Goma for three days this week, demanding that the UN and East African forces finally take military action against the rebels.

The peacekeepers, however, could be outgunned by the heavily armed M23 militia, which – according to a leaked UN report – has received sophisticated weaponry from Rwanda and has sometimes fought alongside Rwandan troops that crossed the border to bolster its attacks.

At a peace summit in Burundi last weekend, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi warned a Kenyan peacekeeping commander that he must not “favour the M23″ in his actions.

The East African peace envoy in the region, former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, said on Thursday that M23 should fulfill its promises to withdraw from captured territory. Other East African countries should urgently send the reinforcements that they had promised the peacekeeping force, and the peacekeepers should “interpose” themselves between the fighting forces where possible, Mr. Kenyatta said in a statement.

In the country’s capital, Kinshasa, members of parliament this week called for urgent action against M23 to save Goma.

M23, formally known as the March 23 Movement, is named after an unfulfilled peace agreement in 2009. It rose to prominence in 2012 when it temporarily captured Goma. It was defeated a few months later by UN and Congolese forces but revived itself in 2021 in the same region of eastern Congo.

One key problem, according to a report by the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies this week, was the absence of any attempt to deal with the conflict’s root causes in 2013 after the militia was defeated. “Instead, the group withdrew from Goma and cantoned its troops in Rwanda and Uganda,” the report said.

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