Army generals in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they have regained control of two strategic towns this week from forces allied with renegade General Laurent Nkunda.  Reporter Kari Barber went to the battle front in Congo?s North Kivu province on Wednesday and said local residents are hoping the army?s recovery of Mushake and Sake on the road between the provincial capital Goma and the town of Massisi could pave the way for greater security for the region.  From the provincial capital Goma, Barber says the population seems to welcome the government?s return and the departure of General Nkunda?s rebel force.

?People for the most part are pretty supportive of the government.  There?s been a lot of unhappiness with the fact that in rebel held areas, people have been taxed twice ? you know, the government taxes they have to pay and then the people who live there also pay tax to the rebels.  And things have been looted and livestock has been killed.  And so for the most part, people are just seeking peace, but they?re hoping that maybe the government taking over these key towns, maybe this will mean a step toward peace,? she said.

Barber says that gunfire could still be heard as government troops moved to gain control of Mushake on Wednesday.  The predominantly Tutsi ethnic town is a key strategic point on the road connecting the larger cities of Goma and Massisi in war-torn North Kivu province.  The town of Sake, located near Mushake, was conquered by government troops on Monday.  Barber says the offensive may have been the reason behind DRC President Joseph Kabila?s absence on Wednesday from talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and three other Presidents of African Great Lakes countries.

?With the situation in the east, he was not there (in Addis Ababa) and the interior minister (Daniel Kalume) was there instead.  I?m not certain why he didn?t show up, but I know that when I was with one of the generals out in Mushake, he was on the phone with Kabila, talking about the offensive against the rebels.  So a lot of people were talking about it being possible he didn?t go because there was a lot going on in terms of the event that it was a kind of strategic day, they said.  And so maybe with this happening, being the beginning of the offensive, maybe he stayed around to help with that,? she noted.

Secretary Rice did not provide details of an agreement reached yesterday in the Ethiopian capital with the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi on how to strengthen security forces in the DRC, but Barber points out that the leaders have talked about ?getting rid of what they are calling ?negative forces? in the region, and for the DRC, that?s talking about Laurent Nkunda, the general. And other countries are concerned about this as well because it is threatening to destabilize the region, as it?s kind of in a border area with Uganda and with Rwanda.  And US officials have said they?re asking Nkunda to quickly seek exile in another country.?