Retreating Congo rebels abandon key foothold

Colonel Makenga (center), commander of the M23 rebel movement, tours the border town of Bunagana, DRC. (Marc Hofer, AP)

Colonel Makenga (center), commander of the M23 rebel movement, tours the border town of Bunagana, DRC. (Marc Hofer, AP)

An official said on Monday heavy bombing was preventing rangers from protecting the critically endangered primates in the Virunga National Park.

"M23 have infiltrated this area and the armed forces have pulled back ... so most of Rutshuru [district] appears to be under M23 control," said park director Emmanuel de Merode.

Rebel leader Sultani Makenga said they were retreating as they waited to hear if the government is ready to negotiate their demands over the March 23 2009 peace deal that had paved the way for them to join the army.

UN peacekeepers supporting the DRC's army have deployed helicopter gunships to bomb rebel positions, one of the mission's spokesperson, Alex Essome, said. But DRC's ill-equipped and ill-paid army appears no match for the rebels, who took Rutshuru on Sunday and Rumangabo on Monday.

De Merode said some 180 family members and non-essential staff evacuated Sunday from the park headquarters, 3km away from the army's large Rumangabo military base.
That base apparently was abandoned ahead of the rebels, who are advancing in the direction of the provincial capital of Goma.

De Merode said he and 30 park rangers still were protecting other parts of the sprawling reserve but not the gorilla sector "because of the heavy bombing in the area, very violent conflict at the moment." He spoke by telephone from the park, where more than one quarter of the world's 800 mountain gorillas live.

"Virunga gorilla sector is critical to the survival of the species because, with such a small population, every individual counts," de Merode said.

Taking more territory
Makenga told reporters on Sunday, hours after they took Rutshuru, that they planned to leave all the towns they've taken except Bunagana, a strategic mineral trading post at the border with Uganda. The rebels had taken the major town without a fight, after the military beat a retreat in the hours before the fighters arrived, said residents and an army officer who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

Customs receipts from Bunagana total about $700 000 a month, according to the Washington-based Enough Project, which works on conflict minerals that long have financed militias and rebels in DRC.

"The government is going to determine if they want peace. And if they want the combat to end," Makenga told reporters in Rutshuru, 70km north of Goma. Rumangabo is about 50km from Goma. "If the military wants to keep fighting us, we will pursue them."

President Joseph Kabila's government has given no indication that it is ready for talks, even as its soldiers flee before the rebels. At the weekend, when Uganda announced more than 500 Congolese soldiers had crossed the border, Kabila's government announced that Makenga and 13 other officers are cashiered from the army and that it is seizing all their assets.

Genocide spillover
The conflict in east DRC is a spillover from Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Hundreds who participated in the killings of some 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus escaped into DRC and still fight there today. The M23 rebels are the latest incarnation of a group of Congolese Tutsi rebels set up to fight the Rwandan Hutu rebels in DRC.

At their most successful, the rebels reached the gates of Goma in 2009, when Kabila's government capitulated by reaching a rapprochement that allowed the rebels to be integrated into DRC's army and troops from neighbouring Rwanda to deploy in DRC to fight the Rwandan rebels. This time round, they are believed to number only a few hundred – enough to take urban areas but not enough to hold them.

Rwanda has denied a new UN expert's report that accuses it of helping to create, recruit for and arm DRC's latest insurgency.

Since it began in April, more than 200 000 people have been forced from their homes, with 20 000 fleeing across borders to Rwanda and Uganda.

In Rutshuru on Monday, life was timidly resuming after the rebel takeover despite a climate of fear, said residents contacted by telephone.

"Traffic is starting up again little by little," said Jules Mushale, a 33-year-old inhabitant of the town. "But lots of people are taking a wait-and-see approach, as we don't know if the military is going to attack. The population is living in a kind of psychosis. One part is hiding in the peacekeeper's camp at Kiwanja which is three miles [5km] from here. ... I have myself evacuated my wife and my three-year-old to Kiwanja. The only thing I am leaving here [in Rutshuru] are my animals."

In addition to Rutshuru and Bunagana, the rebels have taken the localities of Ntamugenga, Katale, Rubare and Kalengera. – Sapa-AP

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