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More than 100 soldiers including two senior officers have quit the army in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to join a mutinous armed force known as M23, the mutineers said Saturday.
The deserters were all members of a former rebel movement, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), who were integrated into the army in 2009 after a peace pact, M23 spokesman Vianney Kazarama told AFP.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende denied the report and claimed the M23 was a fake movement created to hide Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda, a renegade general and former rebel leader who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for using child soldiers.
“There's an office that invents rumours to demoralise our troops. If we must count the number of times they've claimed that units have joined their ranks, there wouldn't be a single soldier left in the armed forces,” he told AFP. “Experts in a neighbouring country invented the M23 to hide Ntaganda.”
Mende would not accuse a specific country, but DR Congo on Wednesday warned the UN Security Council that evidence of Rwandan involvement in the mutiny meant the crisis was “evolving dangerously toward a rupture of the peace” between the two neighbours.
A UN panel of experts on DR Congo has prepared a report for a UN sanctions committee that diplomats say supports the accusations against Rwanda.
A UN report leaked last month said there were 11 Rwandan fighters in the mutineers' ranks, but that there was no evidence Rwanda's government played a role in their recruitment.
The M23 said the new defectors had left the Beni territory in northern Nord-Kivu on Friday night for Rutshuru in the south of the province, where government forces are battling dissident forces in the Virunga National Park on the border with Rwanda and Uganda.
“We have information that the soldiers defected,” a loyalist colonel who took part in the fighting told AFP, without giving a figure. “They are mostly supporters of Colonel Yusuf Mboneza”, a former CNDP commander.
The M23 spokesman said the senior officers who defected were “a lieutenant-colonel and a major”.
The major was an intelligence expert and the lieutenant-colonel “coordinated health operations for Nord and Sud-Kivu in the Amani Leo” (Peace Now) military operation, which was suspended by President Joseph Kabila in April after the first defections of former CNDP rebels in the two provinces.
The new report follows a similar one Wednesday that seven senior officers had quit the government with nearly 170 men.
The M23 mutineers are demanding that the March 2009 peace accord that integrated them into the regular army be fully implemented.
Troops who were once in the CNDP have been deserting for weeks, blaming their poor conditions in the army.
In spite of frequent shelling by the army in the Virunga National Park, the mutineers have held their positions on several key hills in the park.
In recent days, a relative calm has prevailed in the conflict, which has displaced 200 000 local villagers and sent more than 20 000 refugees across the border into neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations. - Sapa-AFP