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Congo Troops Recapture Bukavu - 2004-06-09

Government troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo have regained full control of the eastern border town of Bukavu, ending a one-week siege by dissident soldiers who said they were trying to protect an ethnic group.

The army's approach toward Bukavu early Wednesday prompted remaining dissident soldiers to flee to the east across the Rwandan border, and south toward the plains of Rusizi in eastern Congo.

A U.N. spokesman in Bukavu, Sebastien Lapierre, says civilians were overjoyed by the sudden reversal.

"The population is honestly very happy with that and there's a lot of demonstrations and chanting and singing and celebrating in the streets," he said.

The dissidents had two leaders, suspended General Laurent Nkunda, who has been north of Bukavu in Goma for several days, and dissident Colonel Jules Mutebusi who is believed to have fled to Rwanda.

Mr. Nkunda's army had pulled out with him on Sunday. But Mr. Mutebusi's men refused U.N. orders to remain at camps set up for them in Bukavu, prompting the army to move in. U.N. peacekeepers had also warned they would start arresting dissident soldiers who left their barracks.

General Nkunda says his incursion into Bukavu was meant to protect ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge, who he said have been persecuted by the new national army. Now, the general says most of the Banyamulenge have fled to Rwanda.

"They are out of Bukavu, they are chased out. Even those who returned to Bukavu when I was there, they are now out. They fled again," he said.

During the week that General Nkunda's force controlled Bukavu, there were reports of attacks on local people, including rapes.

The U.N. mission in Bukavu says it will protect ethnic Banyamulenge neighborhoods now that the army is back in control. The Congolese government has also promised an investigation into the persecution of the ethnic group, which has had problems with other Congolese for decades.

U.N. spokesman Sebastien Lapierre says the imminent arrival of provincial administrators in the area should also help alleviate problems.

"We hope that they can come as soon as possible to take their seats and to fill the vacuum at the civilian administrative level, and then problems of the integration of the army will have to be addressed and we'll have to move forward with the transitional process," he said.

The dissident takeover of Bukavu on June second prompted violent protests at U.N. offices in Kinshasa and other cities. The U.N mission is supposed to help implement the power-sharing peace deal signed in 2003. One of the most serious challenges has been disarming former fighters, especially along the borders of former rebel backers Rwanda and Uganda, and integrating them in the new national army.