Villagers flee as DR Congo army pursues Rwandan rebels

Bukavu (DR Congo) (AFP) - Fearful villagers have been fleeing their homes in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as the army pursues Rwandan Hutu rebels in a new offensive, a resident said on Thursday

Troops have captured all positions of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) around Mulenge since it launched the offensive two days ago in the Uvira territory of South Kivu province, an officer told AFP by phone on Wednesday.

A day later, "Mulenge and the surrounding villages have no more FDLR in them, so there is no more fighting in these centres, but we are taking the battle to the deep forests where the FDLR hold out," an officer said from the front.

"Many inhabitants have fled Mulenge 1 and 2 and taken shelter in Katala and Mushegereza. Some have been taken in by families and others are in the two primary schools and a Protestant church," a resident told AFP.

Troops of the national armed forces (FARDC) have killed three fighters in the FDLR, which is currently believed to number between 1,500 and 2,000, and captured eight rebels, according to military spokesman General Leon-Richard Kasonga and updated tolls.

"It's above all in the forest of Kitavu-Kambegere" to the south "where they have sought shelter," the frontline officer added. "We're pursuing them. Our goal is for them to lay down their arms and return to Rwanda."

The FDLR was founded by fighters who fled across the border from Rwanda in 1994, accused of taking part in the three-month genocide of 800,000 people, mainly minority Tutsis, before a Tutsi-led army led by today's President Paul Kagame put an end to the massacres.

The DRC government of President Joseph Kabila has been under international pressure to tackle the FDLR, which is among the most intractable of many armed groups operating in the North and South Kivu provinces, displacing scores of thousands of villagers.

The Rwandan rebels are blamed for killings, rapes, lootings and the forced enlistment of children in the resource-rich Kivus, where they also traffic in timber and gold.

A resident of Lemera, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Mulenge, told AFP that the situation was calm on Thursday. "We're fine. We can no longer hear guns being fired, but the soldiers who went up (on to higher ground) have still not come back. It seems that they have already moved further up on to the high plateau."

- 'Human shields' -

When the offensive was first announced by the Kinshasa government on January 29, the large UN mission in the country, MONUSCO, offered essential logistical, strategic and operational support, just as it had in 2013 to help defeat a rebellion by army mutineers in the M23 movement.

MONUSCO includes a Force Intervention Brigade of about 3,000 men with an unprecedented mandate in a UN Security Council resolution to attack armed movements "in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner."

But the UN mission withdrew its offer of support when Kinshasa refused to replace two generals in charge of North Kivu operations, Bruno Mandevu and Sikabwe Fall, who are both suspected of serious human rights abuses.

While the Congolese offensive has concentrated on the Mulenge region, a military observer pointed out that "this zone is not (particularly) known for the FDLR", who operate "generally ... further to the west."

Efforts were under way to separate FDLR fighters from women and children in the movement, "who have been in difficulty for 48 hours and who get used as human shields," an army officer said Thursday.

An officer earlier told AFP that the FARDC had prepared a "humanitarian corridor" and would place civilians in the care of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR and MONUSCO's department for disarmament, demobilisation and social reintegration will deploy a joint team to assess humanitarian needs and "to support people potentially displaced since operations started", UN spokesman Charles Bambara said Wednesday.