The army of the Democratic Republic of Congo says it has retaken two key towns formerly held by the forces of rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda. The army says it is battling to take full control of the main rebel stronghold of Mushake in eastern DRC. VOA?s Kari Barber is in the eastern town of Goma, in an area near the fighting. She told VOA English to Africa reporter Douglas Mpuga the situation there is calm, although government soldiers could be seen on the streets. ?United Nations and government helicopters have been flying overhead. In the morning they were flying supplies and also ferrying those who were injured on the battlefield,? she said.

Barber said the fighting was prompted by General Laurent Nkunda?s forces, who attacked two towns in what many observers see as a preemptive move. ?It has been two days of fighting in which the government has used artillery and heavy fire in towns west of the city, just outside Goma. And ten kilometers outside of Goma the government forces have taken back one of the towns and the battle still continues [in the effort to] to take the second town (Mushake).?

Although Mushake is a stronghold of the Tutsi, General Nkunda?s ethnic group, the government says its fall is imminent.

The VOA reporter said the government offensive has logistical support from the United Nations forces in DRC. ?The UN forces are providing helicopters, they are bringing in ammunition and food, and they are helping transport some of the approximately twenty thousand government forces that are leading this offensive. They UN helicopters are also being used to evacuate the wounded and the dead.?

Barber said the rebel general is quoted as saying that they (the rebels) are firing back against the government forces. ?They (rebels) are still fighting, defending the town of Mushake. They say they are protecting its predominantly Tutsi people from government forces.?

She said most civilians had already fled the two towns that are the scene of the fighting because rebels and militias have been occupying them for months. ?Hundreds of thousands of people are in internally displaced people (IDP) camps near the city. And in the town of Mushake there are still some people there, but predominantly Tutsis, who are sympathetic and are being protected by the rebels.

The elected Congolese government says Gen Nkunda and his 6,000 - 8,000 men should lay down their arms. Some 15,000 UN peacekeepers are in the DRC to establish peace after a five-year conflict officially ended in 2002.