Rebel seizure of key town sparks alarm in eastern Congo

By Yassin Kombi

BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - The Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group's advance into strategically important new territory in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has led to fresh clashes and food price rises as people flee, two officials and local residents told Reuters.

After weeks of fighting, the rebels entered Lubero territory for the first time last Friday and seized the town of Kanyabayonga, whose location on high ground makes it a coveted gateway to other parts of conflict-torn North Kivu province still under Congolese control.

Further expansion would deepen the security and humanitarian crisis in North Kivu, which has been battling the M23 insurgency for more than two years as well as other militia violence with around 2.7 million displaced within the province.

Alain Kiwewa, a military administrator of Lubero territory, said fighting was raging on Tuesday around the village of Kaseghe, around 30 km (19 miles) north of Kanyabayonga.

"A group of these attackers was already in Kaseghe, and our ... troops are currently driving them out of there," Kiwewa said.

On Sunday M23 spokesperson Willy Ngoma said the rebel group had set its sights on advancing north of Kanyabayonga to take the city of Butembo. The army spokesperson for Lubero declined to comment.

After the rebels entered Lubero territory, President Felix Tshisekedi held an urgent meeting with the defence council over the weekend.

"What is happening in Kanyabayonga, Kayna and the villages of southern Lubero is a flagrant attack on our national sovereignty and the peace of our people," he said.

Congo, the United Nations, and Western powers have repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting M23 with its own troops and weapons, which it denies.

Seizing Kanyabayonga represents a strong symbolic victory for M23 and Rwanda, said security analyst Reagan Miviri at Congo's Ebuteli research institute.

"They invested heavily in taking this town and suffered losses. It is the first time they have set foot in this territory, which is not within the traditional zone of influence of M23 and Rwanda."

The advance has sown panic in some areas.

"I'm hiding in the bush ... I can't go back to Kanyabayonga. I am a government agent, and I fear that the rebels will target me," Deputy Mayor Muhindo Mungumwa Baraka told Reuters by phone on Monday.

The displacement of some communities has prevented farmers from working their fields, leading to a doubling of prices for goods including beans and salt, said Josaphat Tsongo Paluku, who is head teacher in a village north of Kanyabayonga.

"We even have difficulty finding cassava, which is the staple food here," he said.

(Additional reporting by Sonia Rolley; Writing by Anait Miridzhanian; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Gareth Jones)