Bukavu (DR Congo) (AFP) - The Democratic Republic of Congo's army on Tuesday launched an assault against Rwandan Hutu rebels in the volatile east of the country, military and official sources said.
"Operations against the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) began in South Kivu early this morning and will last as long as these people resist," an officer in the armed forces (FARDC) told AFP, asking not to be named.
"We hear explosions here in Lemera, 30 kilometres from Mulenge," said Innocent Ndaheba, a local leader, referring to towns in South Kivu. "We've seen FARDC deploying over the past two days."
Rwandan rebels have been active in North and South Kivu provinces since older members of the movement fled across the border in 1994.
The Hutu rebels are accused of taking part in the mass slaughter that year of some 800,000 people in Rwanda, mainly from the Tutsi minority, before a Tutsi-led rebel front seized power.
"We're worried about collateral damage from these attacks," said Gode Mutama, who lives in Mulenge. "We live a few kilometres from the operations."
Without elaborating, the army source told AFP: "We have taken steps to protect the population."
An official said the operation began in Uvira in the south of South Kivu and that the Congolese troops were acting without the support of troops in the large UN mission deployed in the DRC.
The army officer confirmed that "unilateral operations" were taking place under the command of Brigadier General Espera Masudi in the Mulenge region, on the Uvira plateau.
The assault was first announced by President Joseph Kabila's regime last month, with strategic, logistical and operational support initially offered by the UN mission MONUSCO which includes a brigade with a special UN mandate to take the offensive against armed groups.
However, MONUSCO withdrew the offer when Kinshasa refused to remove two generals designated to lead the campaign, Bruno Mandevu and Sikabwe Fall, with both men having been accused of abuses by the United Nations.
The FDLR is believed to number between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters. The rebels have been implicated in serious human rights violations, including killings, rape, looting and the forcible enlistment of children, in the two Kivus.
The international community last year told FDLR to surrender by January 2, but barely 300 fighters turned themselves in. They included none of the leaders wanted by Rwandan and international justice.