KAMPALA, Uganda -- Heavy shelling and gunfire Monday broke a tense standoff between Congolese rebels on the outskirts of the eastern Congolese city of Goma and government soldiers backed by U.N. troops who were hunkered down inside, as fears also rose of a direct military confrontation between the Democratic Republic of Congo and its neighbor Rwanda.
The Congolese government rejected an ultimatum made by rebels Sunday night to withdraw from Goma and accused Rwanda, which a U.N. panel has said has links to the March 23 rebels, of sending two battalions over the border into Congo to fight on their behalf and firing a rocket that injured five civilians in Goma.
Rwanda has called the accusations "absolutely false and diversionary" and said Rwanda was "exercising restraint as of now," according to a military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita. Rwanda's military accused the Congolese army of bombing the nearby Rwandan border city of Gisenyi, killing one and injuring two others.
Amid the back and forth, Sekombi Katondolo, a radio journalist inside Goma, said that Congolese troops were aligning along the border and that fears of an escalation in the battle were high.
"It's really scary," the radio journalist said, as fighting between government forces and rebel soldiers around Goma broke out Monday afternoon.
Witnesses in Goma said that heavy explosions pounded central Goma on Monday afternoon and that a general panic by local residents resulted in a mass exodus of civilians from the city center. Tariq Riebl, a humanitarian officer for the organization Oxfam in Goma, said that there had been reports of "fighting, looting, complete panic" across parts of Goma by Monday evening and that it was unclear whether rebels had come to control certain areas of the city.
A U.N. official stationed across the street from Goma's international airport said he could hear bombs exploding around the airport.
Scores were believed to be injured in fighting Monday, and several killed, but there was no clear tally of casualties.