Hutu rebels clash with Congo-Rwandan forces

Hutu rebels denied on Sunday that nine people were killed in clashes with joint Congolese-Rwandan forces, as the military had reported the day before. The UN has not confirmed the army's statement, while civilians have expressed safety fears.


AFP - Congolese and Rwandan troops pursued their joint operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo Sunday amid conflicting reports about weekend clashes.

The two armies announced late Saturday that they had killed nine rebels from the Hutu Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), but the group claimed Sunday that no fighting had taken place with their members.

"This is a lie. They killed none of our men for the simple reason that there has not been any fighting between our troops and this coalition," FDLR chairman Ignace Murwanashyaka told AFP by phone from Germany.

Instead, he said, nine Congolese soldiers were killed and one wounded in unrelated clashes with Mai Mai militia -- another of the myriad groups operating in the region and who have participated in marathon peace talks with the Kinshasa government.

Tutsi rebels loyal to arrested Congolese rebel figurehead Laurent Nkunda also denied Sunday reports that their erstwhile leader had fled Congo when he was detained in Rwanda late on Thursday night.

Rather, Nkunda had travelled to a Rwandan town across the Congolese border for talks with Rwandan authorities, said a spokesman for the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) still loyal to Nkunda.

"He went to Gisenyi to discuss action against the FDLR (Hutu rebels) and was arrested there," spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said.

"The Rwandans fooled us," he added bitterly in a telephone interview.

Thousands of fighters from the CNDP have switched allegiance to the Congolese army, after a split earlier in January which saw senior officials publicly dismiss Nkunda as their leader.

Nkunda is currently in Rwanda awaiting extradition back to DR Congo. He stands accused of war crimes committed in eastern DR Congo.

Bisimwa claimed he did not know if the rebel leader was still being held in Ginsenyi. "The Rwandans speak to no-one," he said.

Nkunda's arrest amounts to the most spectacular coup to-date in an otherwise underwhelming joint Rwandan-Congolese offensive to root out militias and rebel groups ravaging DR Congo's eastern Nord-Kivu province.

"The arrest of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is significant," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Sunday.

"The cooperation between the governments of DRC and Rwanda in strengthening the political process and addressing militias is to be welcomed," he said in a statement, adding Britain would continue to support both governments' efforts.

Troops from both countries continued to push northwards in DR Congo's Virunga National Park area.

A column of several hundred Rwandan soldiers marched along a lightly trafficked road between the mountain-top town of Kanyabayonga and Mabenga, in the heart of the park in eastern Congo, an AFP journalist reported Sunday.

For their part, Congolese soldiers were ensconced amid baboons and antelopes near a surveillance station in the park.

Several convoys of United Nations peacekeepers were stationed along the main road in the area.

Regardless of who the victims were or their loyalties, the nine deaths reported by the two armies and the Hutu rebels mark the first casualties since Kinshasa and Kigali entered into their alliance.

FDLR rebels, who are largely based in neighbouring Sud-Kivu province, were observed heading in the direction of Nord-Kivu, an official from the UN's MONUC peacekeeping operation told AFP.

MONUC estimates at least 5,000 Rwandan soldiers have poured into Nord-Kivu since Tuesday as part of an offensive which marks a striking turnaround in bilateral relations, since Kigali had previously been accused of supporting Nkunda's campaign against the Kinshasa government.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning