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03 Dec 2007 13:57
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) army attacked a stronghold of renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda on Monday, a day after his men seized a strategic town from the government and forced out thousands of civilians, United Nations officials said.
At about 5.30am local time on Monday, the army began shelling rebel positions around the town of Mushake, 40km west of North Kivu’s provincial capital, Goma, after reinforcing its positions there during the night.
Army artillery and attack helicopters bombarded targets around Mushake, Major Vivek Goyal, acting military spokesperson in North Kivu for DRC’s United Nations peacekeeping force (Monuc), told Reuters.
Monuc’s own attack helicopters took to the air in support.
“We are engaged in a show-of-force operation in the area, but our attack helicopters have not fired,” Goyal said.
Nkunda’s fighters attacked government positions on Sunday, routing army forces in the town of Kikuku before sweeping into Nyanzale, about 100km north of Goma, and seizing an army base there, military and civilian sources said.
“There was heavy fighting throughout the afternoon,” said a source, who asked not to be named for safety reasons.
“Nkunda took Kikuku and Nyanzale, and the population has all fled. It’s empty.”
Tens of thousands of civilians had resided in the two towns before Sunday’s attack, and humanitarian sources said large numbers of civilians had fled in fear.
Humanitarian sources said civilians fled gunfire in Sake, 20km west of Goma, early on Monday, although Monuc’s Goyal said there was no fighting inside the town and the fighting was moving away from Sake.
Sake, which lies on the main road leading towards Mushake, has twice fallen to Nkunda in the last year, and now serves as a staging point for army operations.
Monuc has said any rebel attempt to retake the town would be met with force.
Mushake has been an important base for Nkunda’s 4 000-strong rebel force since fighting erupted in late August.
Nkunda first led two army brigades into the bush in 2004, saying he would protect eastern DRC’s Tutsi minority.
It was unclear whether Monday’s attack was the start of a broader, long-awaited offensive against the renegade general, but Nkunda’s camp said it was.
“This is the beginning of their offensive. First, I think they are aiming to retake Mushake. We are ready to defend ourselves,” Nkunda’s spokesperson, Rene Abandi, told Reuters.
In October, President Joseph Kabila gave a green light to the army to plan an offensive to forcibly disarm Nkunda’s men after they missed deadlines to disarm and rejoin the army.
Nearly 400 000 people have fled clashes this year between Nkunda’s rebels, the army, local Mai Mai militia, and Rwandan Hutu rebels. Aid agencies fear more fighting will worsen an already grave humanitarian crisis in North Kivu.—Reuters
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