At 07h50 yesterday morning, the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) fired the opening shots of the first ever direct attack on rebel forces in UN peacekeeping history.

Two Mi-24P attack helicopters serving with MONUSCO from the 18th Detached Helicopter Unit, Ukrainian Armed Forces, started the operation by roaring over Kibati heights while firing salvos of 80 mm unguided rockets and 30 mm cannon fire at suspected M23 artillery and mortar positions. Shortly afterwards, Tanzanian artillery and South African mortar teams began bombarding M23 positions around Kibati heights and the rest of the Trois Tours region, between 11 and 15 km from Goma.

“MONUSCO has enlisted all of its attack helicopters and its artillery… to push back the M23 offensive that is under way right now on the hills of Kibati.”

During the fighting an officer with the Tanzanian FIB battalion was killed and several others wounded when a mortar fired by M23 forces fell nearby.

Lt Col. Felix Basso, MONUSCO’s military spokesperson, said at a press conference in Kinshasha yesterday that “MONUSCO has enlisted all of its attack helicopters and its artillery… to push back the M23 offensive that is under way right now on the hills of Kibati.”

The intention, as reported to African Defence Review by sources on the ground, is to force M23 off the Kibati heights and prevent it from being able to shell Goma and surrounding towns, as well as providing support for the advancing Congolese military (FARDC) forces. The three regular infantry battalions with the FIB from South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania remain in support of FARDC units but not at the front of the fighting.

South African Department of Defence spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini told Al-Jazeera yesterday that “The main engagement is by the [Congolese] forces…We are retaliating and going on the offensive.”

It remains too early to judge how successful the first day has been, although the continued shelling of Goma  by M23 this morning indicates that the group retains at least some of its positions in the mountains north of Goma.

Map of the conflict area near Goma where the FIB and FARDC have engaged M23 rebels
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Map of the conflict area near Goma where the FIB and FARDC have engaged M23 rebels

Nevertheless, the spokesperson for FARDC, Lt Col. Olivier Hamuli, offered Reuters a positive outlook on the day’s progress, telling them that “combat is ongoing and there has been an intense bombardment of Kibati, It’s going well. We have not advanced much but M23 is gaining no territory.”

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) also denied M23’s claim that 10 South African soldiers had been killed, confirming that one soldier had been slightly wounded by mortar shrapnel and telling journalists that “The reports of four or 10 SANDF members injured or killed are dismissed with the contempt that they deserve…This is just mere propaganda and psychological warfare from the rebel forces who want to portray their so-called success against the DRC government troops and the intervention brigade.”

South African snipers and a record-breaking shot

In addition to the support provided by the FIB’s attack helicopters, artillery and mortar teams, small teams of snipers from the SANDF have been operating behind the lines to disrupt M23’s supply routes. Most of those supply routes run over the Rwandan border, only a few kilometres from the main M23 positions and combat area.

If verified, that would make it the sixth longest-distance confirmed combat sniper shot in history

As at the time of writing, soldiers within the FIB have reported to us that at least six M23 soldiers have been shot dead by SANDF snipers, including one killed at a range of  2 125 m. If verified, that would make it the sixth longest-distance confirmed combat sniper shot in history.

Rwandan involvement and concerns about equipment

There remain persistent claims by FIB soldiers that the Rwandan Defence Force continues to resupply and re-arm the M23 forces and that some RDF soldiers are fighting alongside M23 within the DRC itself. These reports remain unconfirmed, but are raising concerns within the FIB and UN leadership.

According to Pikkie Greeff of the South African National Defence Union (SANDU), a number of South African soldiers deployed with the FIB have expressed frustration with the lack of heavy support weaponry available to them, particularly the delay in sending Rooivalk attack helicopters. One soldier’s comments to SANDU read: “Expect bad news, more casualties. No Gripen or Rooivalk as promised before the commencement of the mission. Engagements continue. What is meant by less [sic] learnt in Bangui, if we still do the same mistake.”

UN sources have indicated that the process to deploy South African Air Force Rooivalk attack helicopters to the DRC is underway with a hoped-for arrival sometime in October.

Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly printed the sniper shot distance. The actual distance was 2 125 m. We apologise for the error.

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