Congo army says it captured rebel stronghold; peacekeeper killed

Reuters

* Tanzanian peacekeeper killed trying to protect civilians

* Army says captures towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanja

* M23 rebels say they withdrew from Kiwanja

* Rebels threaten counter-offensive unless talks restart

By Kenny Katombe and Chrispin Mvano

KINSHASA, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Government forces said theycaptured the rebel stronghold of Rutshuru on Sunday in a thirdday of fierce fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congoin which one U.N. peacekeeper was killed and another injured.

Following two months of relative calm in the region,fighting flared on Friday after peace talks in neighbouringUganda broke down when M23 rebels demanded a full amnesty fortheir leaders. President Joseph Kabila last week ruled out ablanket pardon.

Three days of victories by government forces have raised theprospect that the army could defeat Congo's most important rebelgroup, ending a 20-month uprising which has displaced tens ofthousands of people.

Army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli told U.N. radio Okapion Sunday that government forces had recaptured Rutshuru, some70 km (43 miles) north of Goma, the largest city in easternCongo. Rutshuru had been taken by the rebels just over a yearago and was serving as a regional base.

The army, which is attacking the rebel enclave in north Kivuprovince from the north and south, took the town of Kiwanjaearlier on Sunday, a day after wresting the strategic outpost ofKibumba on the Rwandan border.

"We are consolidating the zones we have conquered," Hamulihad earlier told Reuters. He refused to discuss rebel requestsfor a return to peace talks in Kampala, saying: "We willcontinue to do our jobs as soldiers."

M23 said in a statement on Sunday it had withdrawn itstroops from Kiwanja, accusing the army of sending in fighters incivilian clothing to try to draw U.N. troops into the conflict.

M23 threatened to withdraw its delegation from the stalledpeace talks in Kampala unless there was an immediate end tohostilities. It said it would then launch a large-scalecounter-offensive.

The U.N. mission in Congo (MONUSCO) said the Tanzanianpeacekeeper was killed during fighting with M23 in Kiwanja.

"The soldier died while protecting the people of Kiwanja,"Martin Kobler, the head of MONUSCO, said in a statement. Theprevious round of clashes between the army and rebels in lateAugust killed at least two Tanzanian peacekeepers.

U.N. BRIGADE

Rwanda, which denies U.N. experts' allegations that itsupports the rebels, said on Friday that Congolese army shellshad landed in its territory, raising fears of a regionalconflict.

Congo's army, supported by a new U.N. intervention brigade,scored its first victories against the rebel movement, which hasbeen fighting for nearly two years, in late August, forcing therebels away from Goma.

The U.N. brigade has a tough new mandate to eliminate armedgroups in the eastern provinces, though it has not been involvedin the past three days of fighting.

The support of the brigade and the weakening of the rebelshas fuelled belief that Congo's army - notoriously disorganised,undisciplined and under-supplied - could defeat M23.

Army sources told Reuters reporters in Goma that M23 hadbeen weakened by desertions, with some 40 rebels takingadvantage of a corridor created by the government troops toallow then to flee rebel lines.

M23 began in early 2012 as a mutiny by soldiers demandingthe government implement the terms of a 2009 peace deal signedwith a previous Rwanda-backed rebel group, many of whose membershad been integrated into the army.

Army spokesman Hamuli said some M23 fighters had fledtowards the Rwandan border in the face of the army advance.

"There are small pockets of M23 resistance in the hills nearRwanda," he said. "We think Rwanda has to prove its good faithand oblige M23 to disarm, or disarm them itself."

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