Many Congolese accuse UN forces of failing in their mission and want them to leave, but the peacekeepers deployed for the new "Springbok" operation say they are determined to protect civilians against rampaging rebels.
With the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), the UN's MONUSCO mission organised Monday a press tour from Goma, the provincial capital, to Sake, 30 kilometres (20 miles) away.
UN troops, on a hill and in a valley near Kimoka village, simulated firing mortar shells. Others, under the watch of curious passers-by, stretched out on the ground with weapons loaded.
"It's a defensive position to counter any advance by the M23" rebels, said Major Eric Deshaies-Martin, information chief for MONUSCO operations.
"If they arrive and cross the lines, we have the equipment needed to stop them."
UN and Congolese troops have launched a joint op to protect civilians from rebel attacks in easter DR Congo. By Glody MURHABAZI (AFP)
On Friday, the force's commander general Otavio Rodrigues de Miranda Filho and the FARDC announced the launch the same day of their joint operation Springbok "to protect the population" and prevent the M23 from taking Goma, which has a population of about one million.
"Our main aim is to stop any vague desire of the M23 to invade Sake or Goma," he said, stressing the operation was still "defensive".
The Tutsi-led M23, backed by neighbouring Rwanda according to the United States and other Western nations, had briefly occupied the city at the end of 2012, before being defeated the following year.
The rebels took up arms again two years ago and have since grabbed swathes of territory in North Kivu province.
A UN helicopter flies over Sake, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, during a field training exercise. By Glody MURHABAZI (AFP)
After six months of relative calm, violent clashes broke out again at the start of October with the rebels facing the national army and armed "patriotic" groups.
Some 200,000 civilians fled for their lives.
The rebels, noted the Brazilian general, "are currently progressing southwards," towards Sake, which, he added, is a "town that sees itself as an essential rampart in the defence of Goma".
- 'Ready to fight'
The Springbok peacekeepers are from India, Morocco, Uruguay and Guatemala, their officers told reporters in Sake, without revealing their numbers.
"The enemy is in the north and if he comes, we will be ready to fight," said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Byabato Rweyemamu, MONUSCO's military spokesman.
The surprise announcement of the launch of the operation was greeted with scepticism in Goma where people want the army to go on the offensive and chase the M23 out of North Kivu.
The citizens movement Lucha on Monday renewed calls for a sit-in on Wednesday in Goma for the departure of the unpopular UN mission and its troops, who arrived in 1999.
Lucha also wants out an East African contingent deployed in the region accusing it too of failing to fight the rebels.
The Springbok peacekeepers are from India, Morocco, Uruguay and Guatemala. By Glody MURHABAZI (AFP)
The peacekeeping forces "hinder the development of the country and it is time the Congolese army took more responsibility to ensure the country's security", said a Lucha statement said.
The government in Kinshasa also wants an "accelerated" departure of the 14,000-strong UN force from december 2024.
Asked why Springbok has been launched two years after M23 went on the offensive, General Miranda Filho said he was "not here last year".
"I arrived in the month of March and I can assure you that I am not here to run away from the fighting," he said.