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Congo rebels take eastern towns as conflict escalates

Tens of thousands of civilians flee, as Congolese rebels take a number of towns. For now, neither the government nor renegade troops are backing down.

By Max DelanyCorrespondent / July 9, 2012

Colonel Makenga (c.) commander of the M23 rebel movement, stands on a hill overlooking the border town of Bunagana, Congo, Sunday, July 8. Rebels have seized several towns in volatile eastern Congo.

Marc Hofer/AP

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Bunagana, Democratic Republic of Congo

Standing in what was once a primary schoolroom, rebel officer Vianney Kazarama points at the dozens of untouched crates of mortar bombs that the government troops left behind when they fled.

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“And they call themselves an army,” Mr. Kazarama, who acts as the rebel spokesman, says. “They're not an army, they're simply our logistics wing, there to supply us with what we need.”

Congolese government soldiers themselves until a mutiny several months ago, in the past few days Mr. Kazarama and his rebel comrades have captured a series of key towns in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, putting the national army to flight and displacing thousands of civilians.

The group – called M23 – say they are fighting to get the government to respect the terms of a peace treaty that it signed three years ago to try to end an earlier rebellion – when many of the same rebel troops seized the same towns and forced the same communities to flee.

But United Nations experts say that they have received support and recruits from Rwanda, a tiny country that has backed a series of proxy militias inside its giant dysfunctional neighbor. Both Rwanda and the rebels vociferously deny these accusations.

Congo's size, administrative weakness, and inability to control its own territory have affected the central African and Great Lakes regions for decades. Since the late 1990s, Congo's neighbors have sent in troops or backed militias to prop up one government and pull down another, often siphoning off Congo's rich natural resources, including diamonds, coltan, and gold on their retreat. While Congo's current president, Joseph Kabila, says he has attempted to bring peace to his restive eastern Congo regions by integrating disaffected commanders and ethnic groups into the national army, his government has been unable to build a lasting peace, and a sense that Congo is in charge of its own destiny. 

Rebel commander meets the press

Surrounded by bodyguards armed with RPGs, Kalashnikovs, and an iPhone, rebel leader Sultani Makenga sits on a fold-out camping chair near the top of a hill that was a base for government troops until a few days ago.

Appearing self-satisfied – if slightly bashful despite the large pistol on his hip – Mr. Makenga was alternately defensive and belligerent as he addressed journalists for the first time on Sunday.

“We’re not here to take towns, we’re here to voice our problems,” Makenga says, several hours after his troops stormed the center of the strategic town of Rutshuru. “Maybe one day the government will listen to us and resolve the problems.”

Makenga says the latest rebel offensive, which saw them sweep into several towns close to the Ugandan border, was only a reaction to a government attack on rebel positions in the surrounding hills, and by Monday his troops appeared to have moved out of some of the towns they captured.

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