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Congo's Government Launches Offensive Against Rebels

By Kari Barber
Goma, DRC
26 December 2007

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has launched an offensive to root out renegade General Laurent Nkunda and other rebels who control parts of the country's east. Efforts to integrate the general and his rebels into the regular army have fallen apart, and now the military has taken up arms. Kari Barber has more.

Congo's army has had to pull back its forces on several occasions as General Laurent Nkunda's rebels advanced, retaking villages the government had captured from them only days before.

The back-and-forth battle pits 20,000 government soldiers -- with the backing of the United Nations -- against about 4,000 Nkunda loyalists.

Congolese Army Colonel Delphin Kahimbi says Nkunda must turn in his fighters and himself to become part of the regular army. "Anytime now if he accepts it, to give soldiers up, it is finished and the offensive can stop."

Nkunda says he is protecting his ethnic Tutsi minority group from Hutu rebels in the area, some of whom he blames for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

It is the civilians who suffer here. They are constantly on the move, fleeing the fighting.

On a hillside above the town of Mushake, villagers wait to see if it is safe to go home. The government recaptured the town just days before.

Villager Mberiko Mwazo recalls, "I remember when the rebels came and they were chasing people and raping women and we ran away."

At this hospital in the South Kivu town of Minova, many of the wounded arrived after attacks on neighboring villages.

Doctors treated patients with whatever means available.

Another villager, Buhati Bucano, suffered a bayonet wound to his hand. He says, "I was working in the fields when rebels attacked the village."

While the government chases Nkunda, other rebel groups continue to operate in the region.

Theophile Museveni of the Mai-Mai rebels called Perico says his group sprang up because the government was not handling Nkunda. "We are not a negative force. We are patriots -- Congolese resistance. He is an assassin. There is a difference between those who kill the people and those who protect the people."

U.N. officials say Perico is committing human rights abuses as well and using child soldiers. Rights groups say the Congolese military also has a bad human rights record.

Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers are in the region working with the DRC's armed forces [FARDC], creating a human buffer between the rebels and strategic towns.

General Indrajeet Narayan, of the United Nations troops, says, "With the FARDC, we have made this line and we have communicated to the negative elements across, 'Do not cross this line - you cross this line and you will get hurt.'"

The U.N. says international troops are there to protect the civilian population.

About 800,000 people are already displaced from fighting in the region. And many worry the conflict will not be over anytime soon.

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