President Joseph Kabila is seeking to end the rebel activity in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
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INSURGENTS RETAKE EASTERN CONGO TOWN
Fighters loyal to a rogue Congolese general have retaken a key eastern town from the army, U.N. officials said Tuesday.
The army had claimed a major victory when it took Mushake - just 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of the provincial capital of Goma -from defector Laurent Nkunda's troops about a week ago. But between Monday and Tuesday, Nkunda's troops retook positions around Mushake and in Mushake itself, said Maj. Prem Kumar Tiwari, a spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Central African country.
"There is no longer any military or regular army presence there," Tiwari said.
Tiwari said fighting continued outside Mushake, near the town of Karuba.
Army officials were not immediately available for comment, but they were quoted on local radio as confirming that Mushake had been retaken by Nkunda's men.
Nkunda defected from Congo's army several years ago and formed his own militia soon after Congo's civil war ended in 2002. He said he needed to protect his minority Tutsi ethnic group from Rwandan Hutu rebels who have occupied forests in east Congo since fleeing Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
Congo officials say his fighters need to hand over their weapons and integrate into the regular army.
Nkunda's fighters and army forces have been battling for control of parts of North Kivu province for more than a year, broken by occasional calls for disarmament or cease-fires. In North Kivu , the army and at least three other factions control separate patches of territory.
Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by fighting in the area in recent months, U.N. officials say. Relief workers in the region said the fighting continues to force people to flee.
"About 30 families have arrived, as well some of the regular army soldiers and officers who had fled," said Edouard Dunia, who works for a child protection group in Minova, a town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Mushake.
GOMA, DRCongo 11 December 2007 Sapa-AFP
DR CONGO ARMY RETREATS UNDER REBEL ATTACK: MINISTER
The Democratic Republic of Congo army was in retreat Tuesday in the face of rebel counter-attacks, the defence minister said, as witnesses described roads packed with fleeing troops.
Residents of Nord-Kivu province, near the eastern border with
Rwanda, described columns of terrified civilians and disorganised troops heading south from rebel forces who retook two strategic villages in fighting on Monday.
Defence Minister Diemu Chikez said however the retreat was an effort to "regroup" and insisted a major week-old offensive against rebel troops loyal to ex-general Laurent Nkunda remained on track.
He said the rebels would not be able to hold on to their gains after they drove army troops out of the strategic villages of Mushake and Karuba, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest and west of provincial capital Goma.
"The insurgents launched a surprise attack. We pulled back and they retook Mushake and Karuba, but this won't last," he told AFP.
"The army is reorganising. We are fighting to recapture these places and re-establish peace and security in Nord-Kivu... Nkunda brought this war onto Congolese soil and we cannot allow him to continue this adventure."
Less than a week ago the government described its capture of Mushake as a "great victory" in the fight against Nkunda's estimated 4,000 loyalists, who claim to be defending Tutsis against Hutu rebels from neighbouring Rwanda.
UN sources in DR Congo confirmed the rebels were back in control of Mushake and Karuba, while army troops were pulling back to the nearby village of Kingi.
Residents of the war-ravaged region said the retreat looked
"We don't understand what's happening. Soldiers of the 14th Brigade (which captured Mushake last week) were fleeing towards Sake, Bweremana and Minova. It was a total rout," said Sake resident David Maheshe.
"Nkunda's men fired on us. They promised to kill us if we returned," said Fazila Riziki, a 40-year-old farmer from Minova, who was still trying to seek her missing husband and children.
Micheline Nzabayi, 37, a terrified mother of four, said government soldiers "asked us to flee. They were not even beaten, they just fled with us".
A spokeswoman for the UN mission (MONUC) in the country confirmed that civilians were also fleeing the battlezone.
"We call for calm from the population. The army has suffered a reverse but this is not the first time that the positions of Mushake and Karuba have fallen into the hands of Nkunda elements," said spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg.
"MONUC is pressing FARDC (the army) to re-examine the strategy on the ground."
The rebel general has rejected demands by Kinshasa and the UN to disarm, and by Washington to surrender and go into exile. President Laurent Kabila has ordered the army to disarm the rebel fighters by year's end.
New York-based monitor Human Rights Watch meanwhile urged the
warring sides to "protect civilians at risk" and asked the UN mission to ensure the well-being of those caught up in the conflict.
"But almost every time these belligerents have fought each other, they have killed, raped and looted civilians. These abuses must stop," it said.
Since the end of August, the regular army has deployed about 20,000 troops to Nord-Kivu to fight Nkunda's men or persuade them to surrender and demobilise with a chance to join a national military.
According to the United Nations, some 375,000 Congolese have been forced to leave their homes in Nord-Kivu since December due to continued fighting between government forces, renegade troops and rebels.
Villagers have been displaced by fighting not only between the army and Nkunda, but also by clashes involving the Mai-Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu rebels hostile to Nkunda.
UN soldiers with armoured vehicles have been deployed around
displacement camps to protect civilians.