GOMA  - Government soldiers were fleeing the eastern DR Congo city of Goma in large numbers on Sunday as rebels advanced to the gates of the regional capital after fresh fighting erupted in the area last week, a UN source said.

“Many soldiers and (local) officials have left,” the UN source said, after a spokesman for the M23 rebel group said they were closing in on Goma but did not intend to take the main city in the restive mineral-rich region.

The M23 warned UN peacekeepers in DR Congo that “we will respond” if they fail to stop backing the regular army by strafing rebel positions in the most serious fighting in the area since July. Goma airport has been closed, a Western military source said, and hundreds of people have fled the city seeking refuge in nearby camps.

“We are in a state of panic. It seems that the rebels are pushing back our soldiers,” said taxi driver Gabriel. “In the city itself, the shops are closed.”   

UN attack helicopters launched sorties against rebels on Saturday as the Security Council demanded an end to foreign support for the M23, whose leader was hit by UN and US sanctions last week.

Kinshasa again accused its neighbour Rwanda of backing the rebel forces in the east of the troubled central African giant, where fighting erupted in April following a mutiny by former soldiers who formed the M23

Rebel spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama told AFP that M23 fighters had reached Kibati, which is five kilometres (three miles) from Goma.

“We’re at the gates... We are not in the city of Goma. It’s not our ambition to take Goma. Nevertheless if (President Joseph) Kabila’s army attacks us, we will pursue the enemy until it is repelled very far from Goma,” Kazarama said. There was no immediate comment on the rebel claim from the army.

But an army intelligence colonel told AFP on condition of anonymity that fighting between government troops and rebels had reached the displaced people’s camp in Kanyarucinya, which is some 10 kilometres (six miles) from Goma, the capital of North Kivu. “All the displaced have left the camp and are apparently now in the city of Goma,” the colonel said.

“We are trying to defend ourselves. We have hope in the new troops which are starting to arrive from Bukavu,” the capital of the neighbouring province of South Kivu, he said.

The M23, which is made up of ethnic Tutsi army mutineers, denied its forces had arrived at the camp.

Kanyarucinya hosts between 60,000 and 80,000 people, many of them women and children, according to the United Nations. When fighting resumed between the army and the M23 on Thursday after a three-month truce, more than 7,000 people returned to the camp.

Hundreds of displaced people - along with troops who had fled the frontline - arrived Sunday at the gates of Goma with their personal belongings and their goats as they looked for other camps, an AFP journalist said.

A UN peacekeeping spokesman said Saturday the M23 rebels had taken the town of Kibumba, which lies just 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Goma.

In New York on Saturday, the 15-nation Security Council went into an emergency session on the crisis.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon appealed to Rwandan President Paul Kagame to “use his influence on M23,” said UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.

Rwanda has denied a report by UN experts that it has backed the rebels. Ladsous said the United Nations could not confirm whether Rwanda is helping the new rebel offensive but told reporters that M23 “attacking forces are well-equipped and very well-supplied”.

A council statement demanded an end to the M23 advance and “that any and all outside support and supply of equipment to the M23 cease immediately”.

It vowed new sanctions against M23 leaders and those who help it breach UN sanctions and an arms embargo.

Last week both the United Nations and the United States announced sanctions on M23 leader Sultani Makenga, who is accused of masterminding killings, sex attacks, abductions and recruiting child soldiers.

While each side blames the other for the latest violence, the UN mission in DC Congo MONUSCO said the M23 had launched an offensive with heavy weapons early Saturday, prompting the UN peacekeepers to deploy to protect civilians.

“As part of this, 10 missions were carried out by (MONUSCO) attack helicopters,” it said in a statement.

“MONUSCO firmly condemns the renewal of hostilities. It calls on the M23 to immediately halt its attacks, which have caused a deterioration of the already fragile security and humanitarian situation.”

Kazarama, the rebel spokesman, said MONUSCO “must stop” attacking areas under rebel control and show its neutrality. “If they continue to strafe us we will respond.”

The clashes are the most serious in the rebellion since July, when UN attack helicopters were last put into action against the M23.

UN experts have said Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, a charge fiercely denied by both countries.

As the fighting flared, the DR Congo government and army levelled fresh accusations Saturday that the M23 rebels were getting help from Rwanda.

DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said the latest fighting erupted when 4,000 men in columns had descended on Congolese territory from Rwanda.

Olivier Hamuli, an army spokesman in North Kivu province, said he visited the front line and saw the M23 was clearly receiving support from Rwanda.

The M23 rebels are former fighters in the Tutsi rebel group the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP).

The CNDP was integrated into the military under a 2009 peace agreement, but the mutineers say they rebelled because the terms of the deal were never fully implemented.