Congo's M23 rebels declare ceasefire but shelling continues

Reuters

* Pushed back by army, rebels declare ceasefire

* Fighting continues in eastern hills - Reuters witness

* Some analysts warn against optimism conflict over

By Kenny Katombe

RUNYONI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov 3 (Reuters) -C ongo's M23 rebels declared a ceasefire on Sunday after a stringof defeats by government forces, but clashes with the Congolesearmy continued in the steep, forested hills to where the rebelshave withdrawn.

The army has in recent weeks driven rebels from towns theyhad occupied across eastern Congo, making mediators optimisticfor a deal to end the conflict, the most serious since a majorCongolese war ended a decade ago.

Uganda, which has led attempts to end the rebellion, hascalled for both sides to stop fighting. A spokesman for Congo'sgovernment called the rebel statement "a step in the rightdirection" but said it was waiting to see if the ceasefire wasimplemented on the ground.

"We call on the facilitator of the Kampala peace talks toimmediately put in place a mechanism to monitor the ceasefire,"the rebels said in statement.

However, a Reuters journalist near the frontline at Runyoni,in North Kivu province, said the two sides were shelling eachother's positions on Sunday afternoon.

"With this kind of thing there is always a delay between theorder being given and the reality on the ground," saidgovernment spokesman Lambert Mende. "In any case the army willcontinue to pursue the demobilisation and disarmament of therebels."

M23 was launched last year by fighters complaining that theterms of a 2009 peace deal ending a previous rebellion in themineral-rich east had not been honoured.

Last November, the rebels seized Goma, the capital of NorthKivu, overrunning government troops and marching past U.N.peacekeepers.

That prompted an overhaul of the army and a strengthening ofthe U.N. mission's force and mandate. Intense pressure wasapplied to neighbouring Rwanda not to back the rebels, somethingit denied doing.

SWIFT GAINS BY ARMY

Congo's U.N.-backed army made swift gains after it went onthe offensive when peace talks broke down 10 days ago.

Rebel fighters this week abandoned Bunagana, their laststronghold in the eastern province, and have withdrawn into thehills and forests around Congo's border with Uganda and Rwandawhere the rebellion was launched last year.

Heavy fighting has eased as the rebels pulled back but thearmy said it shelled rebel positions on Saturday to encourageremaining fighters to surrender.

Colonel Olivier Hamuli, a spokesman for Congo's army, saidlate on Saturday that the army was slowly advancing and hadcaptured three hilltop positions from the rebels, who were nowconfined to the hills of Runyoni, Mbuzi and Tshanzu.

Congo's government has dispatched senior negotiators totalks in Uganda but the army is keen to finish off therebellion, the last in a series of uprisings led by CongoleseTutsis and linked to Rwanda.

In a sign of optimism for an end to violence that has killedmillions through conflict and related disease, Russ Feingold,U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, hadsaid a peace deal could be reached as soon as this weekend.

But writing in South Africa's Sunday Independent newspaper,South African military and defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitmancautioned that it might be "too early to celebrate" an end tothe rebellion.

"Remember that M23 essentially pulled out of positions as(government) forces approached; they were not driven out incombat. Therein may lie a fatal over-optimism," he wrote.

"The key point is that M23 is a guerrilla force and a coretenet of guerrilla war is to side-step a stronger enemy."

Even if a deal is done, deep-rooted issues ranging fromethnic rivalries and conflicts over land and minerals to a weaknational government and meddling by more powerful neighboursmust be tackled to break the cycles of violence in Congo.

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