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DRC readies offensive as rebel general remains defiant

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) army says desertions have weakened rebel forces ahead of a planned offensive against them, but analysts doubt the prospect of a knock-out blow and rebel general Laurent Nkunda remains defiant.

On Thursday the army put on show what they said were 80 deserters wearing ragtag uniforms from Nkunda’s forces.

The display was in Goma, capital of DRC’s eastern North Kivu province where Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels have battled government troops since August.

Government officers said another 47 of Nkunda’s men had also surrendered and were on their way to the Goma transit camp, following a pledge by President Joseph Kabila this week to launch an offensive to forcibly disarm the rebels. Kabila said 1 000 fighters had turned themselves in recent weeks.

”When you lose men who are supposed to defend your cause, you are in the process of collapsing,” said Colonel Delphin Kahimbi, the army’s operations commander in North Kivu.

But a defiant Nkunda, who has led a rebellion since 2004 in defence of Congolese Tutsis, accused the army of exaggerating the desertions and said he would resist a government offensive.

”I’m going to seriously defend myself,” he told a Reuters TV reporter by telephone from North Kivu late on Thursday.

Nkunda also warned the 17 000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force in DRC (Monuc) not to join the Congolese army in attacking him, saying this would be ”catastrophic”.

Monuc, which has sent helicopter gunships against Nkunda’s men in the past, has been supporting the army in North Kivu with air transport, reconnaissance and medical services.

”[The army] has been pouring in reinforcements … Air reconnaissance and mobility are force multipliers. This really is an asset,” Monuc spokesperson Kemal Saiki said.

Kabila, who has vowed to pacify all of his vast, mineral-rich country since winning elections in the former Belgian colony last year, said on Wednesday he had given a ”green light” for the armed forces to move against Nkunda.

But he declined to say when the offensive would start, apparently leaving some leeway for Nkunda fighters to come out of the bush and integrate into the national army under the broad terms of a DRC-wide peace plan that followed a 1998 to 2003 war.

Test for army

Some analysts doubt whether Kabila’s army, which has struggled to subdue the violent east and has serious discipline problems in its own ranks, can inflict an all-out defeat on Nkunda’s men among North Kivu’s hills, forests and pastures.

”The Nkunda side has high morale, are highly motivated, and know the territory very well. They seem ready to sustain any offensive,” David Mugnier, Central Africa programme director for the International Crisis Group think tank, told Reuters.

He added that while the Congolese armed forces were better equipped they would need to be well coordinated in attack.

”This will be a big challenge for [the army],” Mugnier said.

Nkunda says he is defending DRC’s Tutsi ethnic community against attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels he says are supported by Kabila’s army. The Congolese leader denies such support and says he also plans to disarm the Hutu rebels, who are accused of involvement in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide killings of Tutsis.

United Nations relief agencies fear an all-out army offensive will sharply worsen the humanitarian situation in North Kivu, where 370 000 people have fled fighting in the province this year.

One of the Nkunda deserters displayed by the army, Ndenzi Musigirwe, said he decided to turn himself in after the army pushed Nkunda’s forces out of villages west of Goma.

But he added: ”There are those who are still willing to stay with Nkunda, who just want to fight”. — Reuters

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