GOMA – Rebels captured two major towns in eastern Congo after fierce fighting on Saturday, doubling the territory they now control, a civil society leader and residents said.

Fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels intensified in the central Rutshuru and Kiwanja area on Saturday, with heavy gunfire beginning in the morning.

John Bunyen, president of the local civil society, told The Associated Press that the rebels now control the center of Rutshuru and Kiwanja, which is 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the regional capital of Goma.

“As we speak, we confirm that M23 rebels and their allies are in control of the town of Kiwanja, but the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are not surrendering,” Bunyene told reporters in Goma.

There was no immediate confirmation from Congolese authorities or the military about the capture of the two towns.

Daniel Subuka, a Kiwanja resident contacted by the AP by phone, said he saw well-armed M23 rebels making their way into Kiwanja while others were heading toward the center of Rutshuru.

The M23 rebels were inactive for almost a decade before re-emerging last November in eastern Congo. Authorities say nearly 200,000 people were displaced before the latest surge in violence over the past week.

The Congolese government has accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting M23, which the Rwandan government has repeatedly denied.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, tweeted on Saturday that it “strongly condemns the hostile actions of M23 and their serious consequences for the civilian population”.

MONUSCO said it had raised the level of combat readiness of its troops, which are deployed to support the Congolese army in its operations against M23, and said it was providing air support, intelligence and equipment.

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