The M23 militia has recently surged across the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, capturing swathes of territory and inflaming tensions with neighbouring Rwanda.
Leaders of the seven-nation East African Community (EAC) bloc, in which Kenya is the regional heavyweight, agreed in April to establish a joint force to help restore security in the mineral-rich DRC.
This week, Kenya’s parliament approved the deployment of just over 900 troops to the DRC as part of the joint EAC military force.
Two planes carrying about 100 Kenyan troops touched down in Goma airport on Saturday morning, according to reporters present.
Kenyan Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis Obiero told reporters that their mission is “to conduct offensive operations” alongside Congolese forces, and to assist in disarming militias.
“Insecurity is something which breaks up the social fabric,” he added, explaining that the Kenyan contingent would also work with humanitarian agencies in a bid to bring stability to the eastern DRC.
Fighting by Saturday afternoon was edging closer to Goma, however, with Congolese troops clashing with M23 rebels just 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of the commercial hub of about one million people.
The group’s resurgence has cratered relations between the DRC and its smaller neighbour Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the M23.
Despite official denials from Kigali, an unpublished report for the United Nations seen by AFP in August pointed to Rwandan involvement with the rebel group.
Over 120 armed groups are active across eastern Congo, many a legacy of regional wars which flared at the turn of the century.
The mostly Congolese Tutsi M23 first leapt to prominence in 2012, briefly capturing Goma before being driven out.
But after lying dormant for years, the rebels took up arms again in late 2021 claiming the DRC had failed to honour a pledge to integrate them into the army, among other grievances.
In June, the M23 captured the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border.
In recent weeks the rebels have also won a string of victories against the Congolese army in North Kivu, dramatically increasing the territory under their control.
On Saturday, the M23 and Congolese troops were clashing in the villages of Kikumba and Gikeri north of Goma, according to locals and security officials.
“The M23 attacked our positions but we repelled them,” said an army officer via telephone, who asked for anonymity.
A resident of the local area, whom AFP is choosing not to name for security reasons, said fighting has been ongoing in Gikeri since 3 pm.
“We no longer know where to go to flee,” he said.
The United Nations’ humanitarian agency OCHA estimates that recent fighting in North Kivu has displaced 188,000 people.
Kinshasa expelled Rwanda’s ambassador at the end of last month, as the M23 captured more territory, while also recalling its envoy from Kigali.
There are diplomatic efforts underway to ease regional tensions, parallel to the EAC’s military operation.
Angolan President Joao Lourenco visited Rwanda on Friday and met Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in the DRC on Saturday.
“We are all concerned about the situation in the east of the DRC today,” Angolan Foreign Minister Tete Antonio told reporters in Kinshasa after the presidents met.
French President Emmanuel Macron also held a phone call on Saturday with Kenyan President William Ruto, hailing the country’s deployment to eastern DRC.
Macron “reiterated France’s support for the efforts undertaken by the countries of the region to obtain de-escalation,” according to a French presidency statement.
Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta is also expected in the DRC capital for talks on Sunday.
The EAC force will be under Kenyan command. Its total size and scope remains unclear, however.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options