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Kinshasa, Kinshasa City - Congolese troops readied on Monday to seize a stronghold of M23 fighters in the resource-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but there was no sign of frontline fighting as top UN officials flew in.
Troops, backed by a special United Nations force, launched a fresh assault against the M23 army mutineers late last month, with the rebels pulling back on Friday from positions around the mining hub city of Goma.
There was no fighting to be heard on Monday afternoon, said an AFP photographer near the frontline about 30km north of Goma.
The lull coincided with the arrival in Goma of UN special envoy Mary Robinson.
“What happened here in Goma is terrible. I'm glad that calm has returned,” Robinson said on her arrival at the airport.
The former Irish president was to meet with the local authorities and civil society.
“I have come for the people of Goma, the women, the children. That is what is important,” Robinson went on.
The people of Goma were for the most part going about their business as usual on Monday, an AFP reporter said.
Shops and markets were open and some traders reported business had picked up somewhat since the M23's 15km pullback on Friday.
DR Congo forces are aiming to take back the rebel base at Kibumba, about 30 kilometres north of Goma, with government troops just some two kilometres from the insurgent base.
The attack on Kibumba is expected “in the very near future”, a senior Congolese army officer told AFP.
The army had previously claimed to have already taken Kibumba, but the reports were dismissed by rebels.
On Friday, M23 fighters retreated from positions around 15km north of Goma they had held since December, where they had dug in after agreeing a deal to end their 12-day occupation of the city.
The rebels said their decision for a 'unilateral ceasefire' and withdrawal was aimed at “creating a favourable climate” for a “political solution to the crisis”.
However, they warned that they were not prepared to wait long for the government to reciprocate.
The two parties are engaged in talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala, but these negotiations have made virtually no progress since they started at the end of last year.
Overnight Sunday, the M23 accused the government of readying “troops and tanks to open a new military front in Mabenga”, a town some 90km north of Goma.
Western military sources confirmed tanks had been recently deployed near Mabenga, a strategic town commanding a key crossroads.
The military offensive also came amid fresh UN accusations made last week that Rwanda - a temporary Security Council member - has been actively backing the rebels.
On Thursday, the UN said it had “consistent and credible reports” of Rwandan troops entering DR Congo to support the rebels, but Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo scotched the reports in comments made on Twitter.
“Rwandan troops are not in DRC (yet), when they are, you will know,” she wrote Friday, without giving further details.
Rwanda has always flatly denied supporting the M23, a predominantly ethnic-Tutsi force that deserted from the Congolese army last year to turn its guns on its comrades.
The two eastern Kivu provinces, North and South, have been chronically unstable since two wars wracked the vast country between 1996 and 2003, drawing in armies from neighbouring and southern African countries, who fought in part over access to vast mineral wealth.
The latest flaring of fighting in the east risks further complicating the so-called National Dialogue, a nationwide concertation that is supposed to involve the country's political parties and civil society groups and that is due to open Wednesday in three major cities.
The three major opposition parties have already said they will boycott the dialogue, which is supposed to result in a solution to DR Congo's political, social and military woes.
On Thursday delegates from 11 countries in the region will meet in Kampala, with special envoy Robinson in attendance, in the latest of what has been billed as a series of attempts to restore peace to eastern DR Congo. - Sapa-AFP