Congo mutineers pull out of key eastern town
7/9/2012 9:50:06 PM -
RUTSHURU, DR Congo (AFP) - Congolese mutineers on Monday pulled back from several eastern towns they seized last week in fighting that has driven tens of thousands over the nearby borders with Uganda and Rwanda.
The M23 movement -- a group of former Tutsi rebels who had been integrated in the regular army in 2009 -- has been battling Democratic Republic of Congo troops since May.
In recent days, the rebels had conquered several towns in the troubled Nord Kivu province, including Rutshuru, which lies some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Ugandan border, halfway between Lake Edward and Lake Kivu.
The mutineers pulled back from the town along the road that leads to Bunagana, a border town they took following heavy fighting with the FARDC regular troops and still controlled.
But in a statement Monday, the rebels threatened to return if the army tried to retake the towns.
They withdrew so as to "put a distance from all possibility of confrontation with the army in these towns, thereby guaranteeing the complete safety of the civilian populations," M23 said.
"Any attempts by government troops to regain control or to infiltrate these localities will be immediately and energetically put down by our forces," the group added.
The M23 fighters had seized Rutshuru without a fight on Sunday, as well as several other smaller towns and villages along the main road leading to the regional capital Goma, further south.
Mutineers were posted around five kilometres (three miles) south of Rutshuru on Monday, pointing heavy machine-guns towards the town.
"They didn't loot, they didn't bother us, they just withdrew," said one resident, adding that the rebels started pulling back late Sunday.
The group's leader Colonel Sultani Makenga had told AFP on Sunday that his fighters would withdraw from all captured towns except Bunagana.
"Even though we have taken these districts, we will withdraw and leave them to MONUSCO and national police," said Makenga, wearing a regular army uniform with a pistol at his hip, surrounded by around 30 well-armed bodyguards.
MONUSCO is the UN force which was deployed in 1999 to monitor peace efforts in the war-wracked country.
Witnesses told AFP that FARDC troops engaged in looting in the nearby town of Kiwanja as they withdrew from Rutshuru on Sunday.
Many residents there had gathered around a refugee camp adjacent to a MONUSCO base.
Since the rebellion flared earlier this year over 30,000 Congolese have registered as refugees in Uganda, while thousands more are yet to be officially listed, government officials said.
Thousands of others fled into Rwanda, further south.
Alice Katendo, a mother of six, already spent two years as a refugee in Uganda after she fled a 2008 rebellion by the National Congress for the Defence of the People -- many of whose members now make up the current M23 rebels.
She was told it was safe to return to eastern Congo, but after little more than a year back home, has been forced to flee once again.
"Last time we were here for a long time," Katendo told AFP at the Nyakabande refugee transit camp, on the Ugandan side of the border. "I hope now it will only be a few months but it is impossible to know."
Before moving into Rutshuru and other towns, the M23 had sheltered in remote areas of the Virunga National Park, which is home to the world's largest population of mountain gorillas.
A UN report accuses Rwanda of actively backing the M23 movement, whose leadership includes Bosco Ntaganda, a renegade general known as "The Terminator" and wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers.
Kigali has fiercely denied the allegations and in turn accused Kinshasa of plotting "terror attacks" against Rwanda in cooperation with Rwandan Hutu rebels based in the eastern DRC.
The Rwandan FDLR rebels are thought to include perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against current President Paul Kagame's Tutsi minority during which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days.
The region is teeming with small armed groups which fight for control of mines extracting gold, tin, coltan, tungsten and other minerals.
In recent weeks, bouts of fighting involving groups other than the M23 mutineers -- although some may have ties to Ntaganda's outfit -- have even caused higher death tolls than the latest clashes around Rutshuru.