The UN mission in DR Congo confirmed that Laurent Nkunda's rebels have begun a withdrawal on two fronts, while Congolese government troops, facing charges of looting, clashed with local Mai Mai militias trying to halt their retreat.
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Rebels announced Tuesday they would withdraw from two fronts to give peace a "new chance" in strife-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as government forces faced new charges of looting.
The move came two days after rebel chief Laurent Nkunda told UN special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's former president, that he wanted to negotiate a ceasefire with the government.
While the rebels said they would pull back from two fronts about 80 kilometres north and northwest of the regional capital Goma, they continued their siege outside the city of 500,000 people.
The National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) said it wanted UN peacekeepers to police the zone created by their withdrawal from the two frontlines, including near the strategic town of Kanyabayonga.
The CNDP decided it "must make a unilateral withdrawal of its troops for a distance of 40 kilometres (25 miles) on the Kanyabayonga-Nyanzale front and the Kabasha-Kiwanja front," a rebel statement said.
UN forces should "take charge of the security of these separation zones and ensure that no other force occupies them," the CNDP said, adding it wanted to "give a new chance" to peace efforts launched by Obasanjo.
Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, a spokesman for UN peacekeepers in DR Congo, said the UN mission (MONUC) had yet to be "formally contacted" by the CNDP but that the announcement was "a step in the right direction."
Fears are mounting over the fate of more than 250,000 people who have been displaced since fighting erupted between Nkunda's rebels and the military in Nord-Kivu province in late August.
France submited a draft resolution in the UN Security Council on Monday to add 3,000 soldiers and police to the 17,000-strong MONUC in order to protect the vulnerable population.
Cilivians faced more misery Tuesday as army soldiers reportedly went on a new looting rampage in the towns of Kirumba and Kayna after exchanging fire with Mai-Mai militias, who normally back the government but have been angered by crimes committed by the militiary.
MONUC confirmed fighting between the Mai-Mai and the army in both towns, which are some 20 kilometres north of Kanyabayonga, a town of 50,000 and strategic hub for most of the north of disputed Nord-Kivu.
Mai-Mai leader General Lafontaine said his militia accidentally shot at government troops in an ambush that had been planned against Nkunda's forces.
The furious army soldiers then took their anger on the towns of Kirumba and Kayna, Lafontaine told AFP.
"I don't understand this army which loots and attacks Congolese instead of going after the enemy," Lafontaine said he had told his men to stop the troops' looting.
President Joseph Kabila named General Didier Etumba Longomba as his new military chief on Monday in a shake-up after his troops suffered several defeats against the rebels and faced accusations of rape and looting.
Government troops appeared in control of Kayna, with some soldiers celebrating as they drove down the main street. No Mai-Mai member could be seen in town.
In Kanyabayonga, residents said the army soldiers unleashed a fresh wave of looting on Sunday, taking household goods, cattle as well as motorcycles and bicycles. Some women alleged they had been gang-raped.
Several homes in the town, which was practically deserted on Tuesday except for some people who had come to forage for food, were looted and many brick houses burnt. Several front doors bore the marks of forced entry.
"I fled to the bush on Friday but I was chased out of there by the army," said a 24-year-woman who identified herself as Olivia. "After arriving here today I heard gunshots. I don't know where to turn."
Flanking her, Catherine Kapinga recounted how she was raped by 16 army soldiers late last week while "I was fleeing this place to go to Kayna.
"I just want to be able to consult a doctor," she said.
Hersdman Julien Kambale returned home Tuesday but found it bare.
"They have taken my sheep, my chickens and my mattresses," he said.
Date created : 2008-11-19