The Congolese army has launched large-scale offensives against militias operating in eastern Congo, killing hundreds during several weeks of operations, military and diplomatic sources say. While operations by the fledgling army are seen as necessary to pacify the east ahead of elections, there are concerns over large numbers of civilians also killed during the operations.
Still a combination of rebel, government and militia factions, the Congo's army remains chaotic and disorganized two-and-a-half years after the country's vast war officially ended.
Often its poorly fed, badly equipped and ill disciplined soldiers are as much part of the problem for civilians as the groups they are supposed to be attacking.
But during the last week, army units have launched two large-scale offensives in eastern Congo, one in the mineral-rich but lawless Ituri district in the far northeast and another in the remote bush of Katanga province.
An army spokesman said U.N.-backed government soldiers had killed 57 gunmen while sweeping through villages in Ituri over the weekend.
Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers and government soldiers have, in the past, failed to stop fighting between militias and ethnic violence, often fueled by clashes over resources, which has killed 60,000 people since 1999.
U.N. peacekeepers, who did not take part in the combat but provided other support, said the Congolese army had fired indiscriminately, killed many civilians during the operations, however.
In Katanga, further to the south where Mai Mai militia fighters who were armed by the government to fight Rwandan-backed rebels during the war but are now out of control, the army also said it launched an offensive.
Diplomats following the operation closely said the government forces had killed several hundred Mai Mai during the operation to end pillaging by fighters that has displaced 50,000 in an area known as the "Triangle of Death".
The operations highlight to continuing violence in Congo's east, just months ahead of planned elections, which are the cornerstone of peace deals that were signed to end a five-year war that has killed nearly four million people.