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Hutu rebels drop guns, return to Rwanda

Rwanda's Army is flushing FDLR fighters out of Congo.

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Hitimana says he has been trying to leave eastern Congo for two years. He sent three of his children to Rwanda for school; last year, he was imprisoned for a week by the FDLR, which suspected him of wanting to desert. Last week, he escaped to MONUC with his wife and their year-old child as the Rwandans were closing in.

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"We looked for MONUC because we couldn't trust the Rwandan army," he says. "They're armed, so it was risky.... We are getting shot at on both sides—by the FDLR, and by the Rwandan troops."

As the threat of battle with the Rwandans looms, the FDLR have gotten increasingly brutal, according to human rights observers.

Roughly 100 Congolese civilians have been massacred by the FDLR since the joint operations began, says Anneke Van Woudenberg, an Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch.

"The vast majority [of murders] were as the coalition of Rwandan and Congolese forces were approaching Kibua, which was one of the main military bases of the FDLR," she says. "They started to turn against local population, blocking them from fleeing, actually abducting them … and taking them to a military base … and keeping them as human shields."

Others, she says, were shot, hacked to death with machetes, or hit with heavy weapons fire, including a rocket-propelled grenade. It's a level of "ghastly" violence she says hasn't been seen in years.

The rights group also heard reports of Rwandan troops raping Congolese women and girls near Kibua. One woman told the group that Rwandan soldiers accused her of being FDLR because she was Hutu, and then raped her.

Rwandan troops last fought in Congo during the 1998-2002 war, during which it aimed to wipe out the FDLR.

6,000 fighters still in the bush

Though the UN says the increase in deserters suggests that this time, the Rwandan presence may be working, some observers say desertion numbers aren't everything. There are still more than 6,000 fighters in the bush, and less than two weeks officially left of the joint operation.

Philip Lancaster, who ran the UN's demobilization efforts in eastern Congo until October, says the numbers might also suggest the FDLR are moving their families to safety in preparation for a major battle with the Rwandans. While Rwanda has reported killing upwards of 100 FDLR since the operations began, so far there's been no major military confrontation between the two forces.

Mr. Lancaster says that means it's too early to conclude that individual desertions show the FDLR is giving up, especially if the force commanders stay in the bush.

"I don't think the numbers mean anything," Lancaster says. "To see a single commander [surrender] with a group, that's an indicator something is changing."

The Rwandan Demobilization and Reintegration Commission calls the repatriation rates average. Coordinator Frank Musoni says the reintegration camps, where former FDLR fighters spend two months learning about life in Rwanda, are working well under capacity at their two sites, in Mutobo and Muhazi.

"We expect the joint operation to bring bigger numbers, but as of yet, we haven't seen anything exciting," he says. "Exciting numbers would be 1,000 in [the Mutobo camp] and 2,000 in [the Muhazi camp]. Then I would have something to say, yes, this is working."

Former combatants in Mutobo say that no one guilty of genocide will surrender.

"We came voluntarily, but other people will come [only] by force. They will come injured and in handcuffs," says Karege. "That's how we will know the difference."