Congo – Forces loyal to Congo’s government clashed with renegade troops Wednesday, leaving at least nine dissident soldiers wounded and sending hundreds of civilians fleeing as the Congolese government stepped up efforts to take control of the lawless east.
Separately, members of Congo’s 11,000-strong U.N peacekeeping force fought gunbattles with a dozen unidentified attackers trying to infiltrate Bukavu, a principal city in the eastern borderlands where a ruinous five-year war was largely fought.
‘These people opened fire about 100 meters from the port of Bukavu and the Pakistani contingent … returned fire, sending the attackers back into the bush in the direction of Rwanda,’ said U.N. spokeswoman Eliane Nabaa.
The war ended in 2002, and Congo’s government and army now includes former insurgents, among them those backed during the conflict by longtime foe Rwanda.
But the government has struggled to extend its authority into the vast nation’s east, plagued by ethnic fighting and revolts by soldiers who once fought for the Rwandan-backed rebels.
The latest army revolt was centered north of Bukavu, where government loyalists clashed for a fourth straight day Wednesday at the town of Kanyabayonga with former Rwandan-sponsored rebels who are now part of Congo’s army.
The ex-rebel forces in control of Kanyabayonga, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Bukavu, said they repulsed a dawn loyalist attack, pushing the troops back to the north – from where heavy gunfire could be heard in mid-afternoon.
A flat-bed truck ferried at least nine wounded fighters from the front, with one man nursing a bloody arm. Around 200 residents fled the clashes, some carrying small children, others weighed down by mattresses and food.
The displaced people said renegade soldiers had kept them from leaving their village for days, but they managed to flee when the troops pulled out, heading for the front.
The fighting north of Bukavu broke out when loyalist troops were sent east over the weekend. Congolese officials said the soldiers were deployed in the former rebel stronghold to hunt down Rwandan insurgents sheltering there.
Rwanda has in recent weeks threatened to invade Congo to root out the Rwandan insurgents, who it says are remnants of the regime that orchestrated the 1994 slaughter of more than 500,000 people in Rwanda, most of them minority Tutsis. On Wednesday, Congo again charged Rwanda was taking part in the clashes. A top aide to President Joseph Kabila, Antoine Ghonda, said from Kinshasa, the capital, that loyalists captured four Rwandan soldiers Wednesday and that a Rwandan helicopter gunship had joined the fight.
Despite its threats, Rwanda has repeatedly denied its troops are in Congo.
A U.N. team was traveling to Kanyabayonga to investigate the claims of Rwandan involvement, but so far there was no evidence to support the Congolese accusations, said Col. Patrick des Francs, a top U.N. military official. ‘It’s an inter-Congolese affair,’ he said.