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Vital DR Congo power plant caught in rebel crossfire

RUMANGABO (AFP) – The vital Matebe hydroelectric power plant in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo powers Goma and part of the nearby Rutshuru territory.

But the key infrastructure is caught up in fighting between the army and the M23 rebel group, one of many in Congo’s restive east, which launched an offensive against villages and army positions in Rutshuru on March 28 and 29.

“We evacuated all the staff. Only a ‘skeleton team’ remains to protect the installations and ensure the plant does not stop,” said director of the UNESCO-listed Virunga National Park Emmanuel de Merode.

Formed from the remnants of a Congolese Tutsi rebellion, the M23 had been defeated by the army in 2013 after it captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, in 2012.

But the movement resurged late last year, claiming the Congolese government did not respect a 2013 peace deal on allowing demobilised rebels to return as a step towards reintegration into civilian life.

De Merode flew from Goma on Friday to inspect the plant, which has a power of 14 megawatts and was constructed by the Virunga National Park, and raise the morale of the guards and technicians.

The Belgian toured Matebe and the newly started construction site of another power plant in Rwanguba, which will double Goma’s energy supply in three years’ time.

“By your presence and by your commitment, you are defending vital installations for the population of North Kivu,” he told park guards in a solemn address, before returning to his headquarters in Rumangabo.

“We were caught in the crossfire between the M23 and the army,” said security official at the Matebe plant Ali Masudi Bwana of the March attacks.

The rebels “shot machine gun fire in our direction”, he added.