Congo peace back on track as renegade troops flee

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Congolese army troops swept into Bukavu after dawn yesterday, bloodlessly regaining control of the turbulent eastern city a week after it was seized by renegade soldiers.

Congolese army troops swept into Bukavu after dawn yesterday, bloodlessly regaining control of the turbulent eastern city a week after it was seized by renegade soldiers.

The offensive gave an immediate boost to the Democratic Republic of Congo's flagging peace process, which has been badly buffeted by the recent surge in violence.

Bukavu residents sang, beat drums and honked their horns to celebrate the ousting of Colonel Jules Mutebutsi and about 300 dissident fighters, whose brief occupation had been accompanied by a spree of theft and rape.

Following fighting on Tuesday, Col Mutebutsi's troops fled into the surrounding hills under cover of darkness, clearing the way for the government return, according to UN officials. Some soldiers flung off their uniforms and attempted to melt into the civilian population.

"Everyone is happy because we now feel secure with the arrival of these sons of Congo," Pader Mideso, a trader, told the Associated Press. However, some government soldiers and civilians engaged in a fresh looting spree, stealing cooking utensils, money and food at gunpoint. At one point UN peacekeepers fired in the air to disperse a large crowd gathered around a weapons cache left by the fleeing renegades.

Col Mutebutsi had fled to the south across the Ruzizi Plains, according to a senior government officer. "It's the beginning of life on the run for him," said Colonel Simba Hussein. The Bukavu occupation plunged Congo's power-sharing transitional government, which is less than a year old, into its greatest crisis. President Joseph Kabila blamed the attack on neighbouring Rwanda, raising fears of a fresh war between the two countries. Rwanda angrily denied the allegation.

"This is a good sign for the peace process. We have been struggling for weeks to get it back on track," said Alpha Sow, head of the UN mission in South Kivu province.

The largest renegade group was led by Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda, who said he attacked Bukavu to prevent attacks on the Banyamulenge, a minority Tutsi tribe. But analysts and UN officials derided the allegation as baseless, pointing instead to widespread pillage, murder and rape carried out by his troops during their short-lived occupation. At least 90 people were killed and 130 injured in the fighting and in attacks on civilians, said local Red Cross officials.

General Nkunda withdrew from Bukavu on Sunday, saying his mission had been accomplished. His withdrawal also relieved pressure on the UN mission, which was the target of violent protests last week for failing to prevent the attacks. The UN has deployed 10,800 peacekeepers but the mission has been criticised for being under-manned and lacking international support. A spokesman for the government forces, Colonel Leon Richard Kasonga, said the army's priorities were "to consolidate peace and re-establish order in the town of Bukavu". Nevertheless the upheaval has doubtlessly inflicted serious damage on the peace process, exacerbating political divisions and casting doubt on the feasibility of national elections scheduled for next year.

And bellicose language from all sides has heightened tensions, raising the possibility of fresh clashes. Yesterday President Kabila repeated his accusations against Rwanda, and ordered General Nkunda's arrest. The offensive has also stoked ethnic tensions, particularly against the Banyamulenge community, which many Congolese accuse of collaborating with the renegades. About 1,000 Banyamulenge fled into Rwanda on Tuesday night, adding to 2,000 refugees that had already crossed the border.