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Kinshasa - Mutineers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have seized territory near the Rwandan border following an offensive against government troops, the U.N. and government officials said on Friday.
The troubled province of North Kivu has been swept by fresh waves of violence since late March, after hundreds of former rebels defected from the army in support of the renegade general, Bosco Ntaganda.
The new fighting in minerals-rich North Kivu province will likely dampen hopes of any revival which had began in the region following a short lull in fighting after two decades of instability.
The United Nations estimates the fighting has forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes since April.
The mutiny risks dragging eastern Congo back into war and damaging fragile relations with neighbouring Rwanda, which has have repeatedly denied allegations that the rebels - known as M23 - are receiving cross-border support.
This is the first time in recent weeks that the heavily outnumbered rebels have seized territory from government forces, who had been bombarding M23 positions with helicopter gunships and artillery.
“It looks as though (M23) have taken four or five villages and what I've heard is that the army is planning an offensive to take the positions back,” Alex Essome, a spokesman for the U.N.'s peacekeeping mission in provincial capital Goma told Reuters.
A spokesman for M23 said the group had inflicted heavy losses on government troops and seized large quantities of arms during fighting on Thursday, although this could not be independently verified.
Colonel Vianney Kazarama, who is leading the rebels in the area, said his group would consolidate their new positions and repel any counter-offensive.
“If they attack us again, we'll chase them off,” he stated.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said rebels had advanced around 2 km from their positions near Mbuzi, but the army had seized other territory near M23 headquarters in Runyoni.
Mende also said the mutineers had deliberately cut water to the town of Bunagana and had attacked government positions using heavy weapons supplied from across the Rwandan border.
“We are waiting for a response from (Kigali) as to why they are reluctant to stop this support for the M23,” Mende said.
Rwanda has vigorously denied sending support across the border to the mutineers, who are former members of the Kigali backed CNDP armed group, which integrated into the Congolese armed forces following a 2009 peace deal.
The Congolese government has repeatedly said it is not prepared to negotiate with the rebels this time, but that situation could change if M23 is able to seize more territory and strengthen their bargaining power, said Fred Robarts, former head of the U.N.'s Group of Experts panel in Congo.
“Unless they're negotiating from a similar position of strength, the government won't be prepared to concede so much ground,” he said. - Reuters