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Congolese Government Troops Advance on Rebels - 2004-09-11

Congolese government forces have launched fresh offensive against rebels still controlling large parts of the east of the country. There are no figures for casualties, but the United Nations says one town has been retaken and they army says it will continue until a dissident army officer is neutralized.

In the months since he launched his rebellion, attacking and temporarily seizing a town in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, dissident army officer General Laurent Nkunda has controlled large swathes of territory.

He withdrew from Bukavu, the town he held for a week in early June, under intense pressure from the international community. But, his rebel force was not disarmed and he remains at ease in a lakeside base some 130 kilometers to the north.

The government has for a long time accused neighboring Rwanda and RCD-Goma, a former rebel group backed by Kigali during Congo's five year war, of supporting the rebels.

But, following the embarrassing fall of Bukavu, up to 15,000 extra troops have been redeployed to the east, supplies of weapons and ammunition have been improved and moral has been restored.

And this week, the army said that it has been given the green light to restore its authority over all areas under its jurisdiction and, as a result, gone on the offensive.

On Friday, U.N. and military sources said government forces had taken the town of Nyabibwe, just 30 kilometers to the south of General Nkunda's base, and were marching north.

Residents in Goma, a town to the north, said some civilians fleeing the expected clashes, had begun arriving in the town by Friday evening. On Saturday there were also unconfirmed reports of clashes to the west and the north of Goma.

Kinshasa's move to reinforce its forces in the east of the country in June raised fears of a renewed conflict in the region when Rwanda called the deployments a hostile act.

Rwanda has invaded Congo twice in the last eight years and has already told diplomats in the region that it is monitoring the latest advance of the Congolese troops closely.

Congo is struggling to emerge from its last war that killed three million people, mostly from hunger and disease.

Elections are due next year but there is still a lack of trust between former belligerents and the transition has this year already been rocked by the rebellion in the east, two apparent coup attempts in the capital and the recent massacre of 160 Congolese Tutsis in neighboring Burundi.