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Emergency UN talks planned as DRC ‘push back’ M23 rebels

The UN Security Council will hold emergency talks on Monday on a new surge in fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in which a UN peacekeeper was killed, diplomats said, as government troops cleared rebels from strategic positions in the country's restive east.

The FARDC regular army took back control of both the city of Rutshuru and the rebel-held town of Kiwanja, home to a base used by the UN mission Monusco that had been repeatedly looted by rebels, said the governor of North-Kivu province, Julien Paluku.

Monusco said a Tanzanian officer was killed in Kiwanja, where United Nations forces joined the army to drive out rebels on the third day of clashes since a fresh flare-up in violence on Friday. The circumstances of his death were unclear, said the UN force.

The soldier was the third Tanzanian with the UN brigade to have been killed in recent months.

"The soldier died while protecting the people of Kiwanja," said Monusco head Martin Kobler in a statement.

The spokesperson for UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in a statement the UN chief "condemns in the strongest terms the killing of a Tanzanian peacekeeper who came under fire from the M23 movement in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The secretary general offers his sincere condolences and sympathy to the family of the victim, and to the government of the United Republic of Tanzania."

UN 'remains committed'
The statement added that the United Nations "remains committed to taking all necessary actions … to protect civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo".

France later called for an emergency meeting of the 15-member Security Council to discuss the latest crisis in the troubled region.

M23 said it had "retreated without combat", saying it "refused to fight in Kiwanja".

In a statement, the group also threatened to pull out of stalled peace talks with Kinshasa unless there was an "immediate cessation of the hostilities".

In the town of Rutshuru, relieved residents "showered soldiers with flowers to thank them for their help" after the rebels fled, according to one local man who gave his name as Bruno.

By Sunday evening, a high-ranking army officer said troops had also taken the strategic town of Kibumba, which has seen heavy fighting since clashes first broke out there on Friday. "Kibumba is under FARDC control," the source said.

'Internal investigation'
Provincial governor Paluku said two mass graves had been discovered in the town. He called for "an international investigation" and said army troops had been told not to touch the bodies.

A Monusco officer who did not wish to be named said there had been "numerous flights by M23 rebels" but refused to confirm that government forces were in complete control of Kibumba.

There was no immediate comment from M23 rebels on the situation in the Kibumba, some 25km north of the regional mining hub of Goma.

Kibumba, located high on a plateau at an altitude of nearly 1 800m, is an outpost that provides access to rebel territory further north, and has been home to the M23 since a Monusco offensive in late August.

This latest bout of fighting comes less than a week after the breakdown of peace talks in Uganda, which both sides agreed to in 2012 after a rebel offensive saw the M23 briefly take control of Goma.

'Maximum restraint'
The UN has since deployed a special brigade of 3 000 African troops with an unprecedented offensive mandate but observers remain wary of an escalation that could draw in the entire region.

The UN chief's top envoys to the conflict, Kobler and Mary Robinson, have voiced grave concern over the fresh fighting, calling for "maximum restraint". The United States and European Union have also sounded the alarm.

But the unrest showed no signs of abating with the M23 warning in a statement on Sunday that "it will no longer tolerate another military attack on our troops' positions".

If attacked, the rebels would plan a large-scale counter-offensive against "all enemy positions", M23 communications chief Amani Kabasha said in the statement.

DRC's neighbour Rwanda on Friday accused the Congolese army of firing three shells over the border into its territory and threatened to retaliate.

Kinshasa has long accused Kigali of pulling the strings behind the rebellion and UN experts have even said that the M23's "de facto chain of command" was topped by Rwanda's defence minister. – AFP

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