/ 8 July 2012

Rebels roam border town after rout of army

Military uniforms, helmets and boots lie strewn across the floor of the primary school in the border village of Bunagana in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The paraphernalia of war were abandoned early on Friday when 600 Congolese soldiers who once secured a key border crossing with Uganda suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Tutsi rebel fighters and were forced to flee into the neighbouring nation.

The army had launched an offensive on Thursday to rout fighters from the March 23 Movement — better known as M23 — who were holed up on hillsides near the Virunga national park, a famous jungle area home to most of the world's few remaining mountain gorillas.

But the attack was short-lived and the rebels quickly pushed back loyalist forces.

"We fought all night and it was at 5am that we took control of all of Bunagana", rebel colonel Antoine Manzi said.

The mutineers also claimed to have taken control of other towns further to the west, including Jomba and Chengerero, in Nord-Kivu province.

According to the Ugandan press, 600 soliders — including 25 who were wounded — and 60 Congolese police fled into Uganda on Friday morning.

The M23 soldiers had integrated into the army under a 2009 peace deal but quit this year over poor conditions and pay and have since been embroiled in tit-for-tat clashes with army loyalists.

The capture of Bunagana and control of the border with Uganda in this resource-rich region is the most significant military accomplishment for the rebels so far.

The Congo army will likely seek to retake the town, but its work has been made harder after fleeing loyalist troops dumped weapons, ammunition and supplies.

Bunagana abandoned

Located near the centre of the town and surrounded by a few houses and banana groves, the elementary school visited by Agence France-Presse had been used as a centre of operations for the Congo's 42nd battalion of the Rapid Reaction Force of the Congolese Army, known by its French acronym FARDC.

No bullet holes or signs of fighting were visible at the school, only plans to flee the rebels, who United Nations experts say are being supported by senior members of the Rwandan army.

Rwanda has denied claims it is supporting the Tutsi rebels.

In some rooms, boxes of ammunition and first aid were abandoned, along with anti-tank rockets, as well as military documents strewn here and there.

A strategic hill overlooking the town and into Uganda was also abandoned along with its heavy weaponry: 120mm mortars, anti-tank canons, anti-aircraft guns and multiple rocket launchers.

In a small FARDC tent was a jumble of first aid, water bottles, sacks of beans and corn flour, fuel cans and boxes of shells.

The ongoing violence has displaced more than 200 000 and driven more than 20 000 refugees into Rwanda and Uganda.

On Saturday, calm had returned to the town, emptied of all residents.

Businesses were shut and mutineers, wearing the uniforms of the Congolese army, walked about the city.

A few residents who had sought shelter in Uganda — more than 5 000 fled in two days — briefly returned to gather food and personal possessions.

Standing in front of the door of her house, Suzanne Bikoro (28) was gathering pots along with some flour, maize and a few beans.

"I fled with two kids and my husband early Thursday morning because the rebels were advancing towards Bunagana," she said.

"I heard heavy weaponry and I was afraid. We crossed the Ugandan border. I came back to grab some food to cook."

"We can't stay because if the FARDC comes back to attack, it will be bad," said 36-year-old Bamas Sibomana.

"We've suffered a lot because of this war. In Uganda, we don't have anything to eat and that's why I'm back here, but I'll go back there soon."

At the border post, mutineers were quizzing those who want to return to Bunagana.

On another hill close to a mobile phone tower, the United Nation's mission to Congo has established a small base. During the fighting, one peacekeeper from India was fatally wounded.

The UN mission is among the most important UN posts in the world, with about 18 000 soldiers located primarily in the restive east of the country.