Six Pakistanis, one Russian and one Serbian peacekeeper killed when their chopper went down during reconnaissance mission in area hit by recent fighting.
Eight people have been killed when a helicopter operated by the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) went down in the country’s restive east, in an area where there has been fighting this week between rebels and the Congolese army.
The mission, known as MONUSCO, did not state the cause of the crash in North Kivu province on Tuesday and said an investigation was under way.
There had been eight people on board the Puma helicopter, including six crew members – all from the Pakistani military – and two military personnel – one from Russia and another from Serbia. Their bodies were retrieved during a search and rescue operation launched by MONUSCO.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his “deep sense of shock and grief”, his office said, paying tribute to the global peace effort by the country’s armed forces.
MONUSCO said the helicopter was on a reconnaissance mission when it crashed in the area of Tshanzu, the scene of recent clashes between the M23 rebel group and Congolese soldiers.
The DRC’s army said the helicopter was shot down by the M23 rebels. But the group denied this, instead claiming the Congolese military was responsible for the crash.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern “by the resurgence of M23 activities in the tri-border area around Rwanda-DRC-Uganda as well as the ongoing impact of violence involving armed groups on civilians”, his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said.
The M23 group was driven out of the DRC after a series of attacks in 2012 and 2013 and chased into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. Its fighters have since come back to wage attacks, including one in the same part of eastern DRC in November.
This week, heavy fighting started late on Sunday when the M23 attacked two Congolese army positions. By Tuesday, the rebels had moved into the city of Kabindi and were nearing the area’s local administrative seat, the town of Rutshuru, according to a civil society coordinator.
“If these enemies manage to dislodge our forces, Rutshuru centre will fall,” Jean Damascene Baziyaka told reporters.
According to the Ugandan Red Cross, some 6,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring Uganda to escape attacks by M23 rebels.
Uganda’s army has also entered the fray and said it killed 14 fighters of the group near the border with the DRC on Tuesday.
“This evening they [M23] attacked us, they shelled the Ugandan side and some civilian houses were destroyed. Our forces responded and 14 rebels were killed, seven were taken prisoners of war,” Ugandan military spokesperson Brigadier Felix Kulayigye said, adding one of its soldiers also died in the fighting.
There have been regional efforts in recent years to demobilise the M23, but its leaders have complained about the slow implementation of a peace accord and accuse the Congolese army of waging war against it.
M23 spokesman Willy Ngoma said on Tuesday the group was fighting only to defend itself.