GOMA, Congo — Thousands of people have fled the town of Pinga in eastern Congo following renewed fighting between local armed groups, and nine members of Doctors Without Borders' Congolese staff have gone missing, the aid group said Friday.
Jan Peter Stellema, the head of Doctors Without Borders' operations in Goma, said civilians in the area had been facing violence regularly. "Pinga has changed hands eight times in a year and civilians are caught between a rock and a hard place," he said.
The town, located on the border between the Masisi and Walikale territories, has been the scene of fighting between the Mai Mai Checka and the APCLS, two local armed groups vying for control of land in the mineral-rich area.
Pinga has been controlled by Mai Mai Checka for months but on Sunday, the APCLS attacked, taking control of the town for two days until Mai Mai Checka managed to take Pinga back on Tuesday.
APCLS spokesman Col. Augustin Fonu confirmed the attack to The Associated Press, but did not offer any further comment.
Most of the population has fled into the nearby forest, while some civilians have taken refuge in the town's hospital.
Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, initially said that 11 members of its Congolese staff had gone missing, but two staff members have since been accounted for. Stellema said the aid group expected to hear from the others soon.
Eastern Congo has been wracked for fighting since neighboring Rwanda's 1994 genocide, and the region is home to an array of armed groups.
The feud between the two militias in Pinga has gone on for years, but the fighting has intensified since the start of a new rebellion in the area one year ago. A fighting force known as M23 is behind the new rebellion and is alleged to be backed by Rwanda, an allegation the country denies.
Fighting against the M23 has mobilized most of the Congolese army resources for a year, creating a security vacuum in large areas of Congo's North Kivu province.
Both the Congolese army and the M23 have forged alliances with local armed groups to extend the areas under their control. The APCLS has been armed by the Congolese army, while Mai Mai Checka is believed to be an ally of the M23.
Caught in the middle are civilians in Pinga, some of whom have been accused of collaborating with one or the other militia. Residents say they have suffered murders, rapes and pillaging amid the fighting.
In September, Mai Mai Checka decapitated several civilians and paraded the heads around the town to intimidate the population. Following Sunday's fighting, several houses were pillaged and one combatant was beheaded, Doctors Without Borders said.