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08 Jul 2012 19:41
Rebel fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo have seized control of three towns in the country's east, consolidating gains over state forces. (AFP)
They also and tightened their grip on a Uganda border crossing on Sunday.
The rebels, known as M23, are mutinous Tutsi troops who abandoned the regular army earlier this year in a dispute over pay and conditions.
They said they took the Nord-Kivu province towns of Rutshuru, Ntamugenga and Rubare, less than 10km by road from the provincial capital Goma, shortly after midnight.
According to M23 spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the rebels faced no opposition from the Congolese army, known as the FARDC.
"Our men have just taken the town of Rutshuru. On Saturday evening the FARDC came down to our position at Mbuzi.
We decided to pursue them and they lost Ntamugenag, then we came down to Rubare," Kazarama said.
Sporadic gunfire was later heard in Rutshuru but it may have been celebratory shots fired into the air.
The gains come two days after rebels took another town, Bunagana, close to the border with Uganda, where M23 leader Colonel Sultani Makenga was seen on Sunday wearing a regular army uniform with a pistol at his hip, surrounded by around 30 well-armed bodyguards.
Searching for rebels
The town's capture came after the army led an offensive to try to dislodge rebel soldiers from their hideouts in the surrounding green hills.
But according to the M23 spokesperson and local civilians, the attack quickly turned into a defeat for the army, with 600 troops dumping weapons and supplies and fleeing across the border into Uganda.
A UN peacekeeper from India was killed in the fighting.
On Sunday, eight armoured vehicles from the United Nations mission in DRC fled Rutshuru for a UN base 5km away in Kiwanja, where many local residents were sheltering in a camp for displaced people.
Many fled Rutshuru on Saturday, fearing an M23 attack.
Fighting in the resource-rich region between government troops and the rebels has intensified in recent days.
A recent UN report said Rwandan officials had provided direct support to M23, including weapons, ammunition and recruits, charges Rwanda denies.
Before taking Bunagana and Rutshuru, the rebels had been living on the hills of Virunga national park, home to two active volcanoes and many of the world's few remaining mountain gorillas, and resisted weeks of army shelling.
The mutiny started when more than a dozen senior officers deserted with hundreds of men in the volatile Nord and Sud-Kivu provinces in the east of this vast central African nation.
The officers are close to General Bosco Ntaganda, who since 2006 has been sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes including recruiting child soldiers.
He is accused of leading the mutiny, though others in the movement deny ties.
The ongoing violence has displaced more than 200 000 people and driven more than 20 000 refugees into Rwanda and Uganda. – AFP
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