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Democratic Republic of Congo troops were involved in a mopping-up operation to rout the remaining pockets of the M23 rebel movement, after seizing their last stronghold in a push to finally break the back of the insurgency.
At the same time, a US envoy called on Thursday for “semi-permanent” peace talks, saying that the world needed to do more for the eastern DRC after the end of the M23 rebellion.
Thousands have fled the fighting between government troops and the M23 movement, which was founded by ethnic Tutsi former rebels who were incorporated into the Congolese army under a 2009 peace deal, but then mutinied in April 2012, claiming that the pact had never been fully implemented.
Congolese troops were carrying out operations against the rebel resistance in territory near the Ugandan border, following an offensive launched six days earlier, a local resident in the town of Jomba said, reached by telephone.
The resident, who asked not to be named, told AFP that a little girl had “been wounded by a bullet” in the latest fighting but gave no details.
“The soldiers spent the night here and then went to the front” at dawn, he said.
Sustained gunfire could be heard on the phone, as the source confirmed that the warring sides were also using heavy weapons. An AFP journalist on the Ugandan side of border could hear mortar fire.
A source in the UN mission in DRC (MONUSCO), which is helping the army, said the offensive against the M23 was in “the last phase”, after the army captured the main rebel base at Bunagana on Wednesday.
Diehard M23 fighters, estimated at just a few hundred men, were dug in on three hills in farming territory about 80km north of Goma, the capital of strife-torn North Kivu province.
The Congolese army (FARDC) “has encircled the residual M23 positions to dislodge them... the operation is under way”, the source said.
Since fighting resumed on October 25, after peace talks collapsed in Uganda, no UN troops have directly taken part in the offensive, but MONUSCO has provided government forces with intelligence, reconnaissance and logistical help.
After the fall of the rebel headquarters at Bunagana, President Joseph Kabila on Wednesday again urged the M23 fighters to “demobilise voluntarily”, warning that his men would otherwise “make them do so by force”.
Kabila said that “political and diplomatic solutions” remained on the negotiating table in Uganda's capital Kampala, where the rival sides have held stop-start talks since December and their representatives expressed guarded optimism.
“The negotiations are making progress,” M23's deputy delegation chief Roger Lumbala said at midday on Thursday. “Maybe today, they will have finished and we can put an accord on the table to sign it.”
Russ Feingold, the US special envoy for the Great Lakes region, said he expected that the talks in Kampala would lead within days to an agreement in which M23 rebels would disband.
Feingold, who will travel on Sunday to South Africa for regional meetings, noted however that there were still “40 to 45 armed groups in eastern Congo”.
“I think we need actual mediated talks, peace talks - a semi-permanent mechanism,” said the former US senator in Washington.
Violence also broke early Thursday in Lubumbashi, the country's second largest city, when members of the armed group Bakata Katanga, seeking independence for Katanga province, attacked the home of the military police chief, killing one soldier, an official source who requested anonymity told AFP.
On Tuesday the same group had attacked a munitions depot in the south-east region, leaving three rebels and three soldiers dead according to officials. But an AFP correspondent reported that 23 “mournings” had been organised at the military camp for those killed in the attack, which would bring the death toll to 29.
The conflict with the M23 rebels has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in North Kivu, a densely populated province rich in precious minerals and agricultural produce that has been a battleground for soldiers, rebels and militias for more than two decades.
About 5 000 civilians crossed into Uganda at Bunagana between Monday and Wednesday, according to the United Nations.
Kinshasa and the United Nations charge that M23 is backed by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, an allegation the two countries strongly refute.
At their strongest in November last year, M23 marched into Goma, a mining hub city of one million people, and took control for 10 days, before regional leaders persuaded them into fresh peace talks. - Sapa-AFP