, KINSHASA, Jul 13 – Mutinous soldiers in DR Congo’s eastern Kivu region who had handed their occupied towns back to police and UN peacekeepers gave the army an ultimatum Friday to withdraw from the settlements.
The M23 movement said in a statement that having handed over the towns of Kiwandja and Rutshuru in Nord-Kivu province to the police and UN peacekeepers, the return of government troops there was “unacceptable”.
“This act of provocation is a challenge launched against our forces who chased them out of there” and a humiliation for local people, who were subjected to abuse by government troops as the army fled, said the statement.
The rebels said they considered the return of the troops as a threat to their own positions and called on the army to withdraw “without delay”.
Failing that, the statement added, “they will be held responsible for all the consequences relative to their presence.”
The ultimatum from the M23 rebels came a day after UN and government troops used helicopter gunships to attack the rebels’ positions after fears the mutineers were threatening the main eastern city of Goma.
Three UN helicopters and two from the Congolese army fired heavy ammunition and rockets at rebel positions in Nkokwe and Bukima, two towns in the south-east of Virunga national park, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Goma.
The UN’s mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, is one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in the world.
The helicopter attacks followed a series of key gains by the rebel soldiers.
On July 6, they captured Bunagana, the main crossing point into Uganda, after clashes with the army. Two days later they took Rutshuru, which lies 70 kilometres from the regional capital Goma.
While the mutineers have pulled out of some towns they captured, they still control Bunagana.
Congolese government troops recaptured Rutshuru and other towns in the region earlier this week.
UN peacekeepers and the army on Wednesday set up a protective perimeter north of Goma.
The rebels however insist that their objective is to force negotiations with the Congolese government — not to capture the regional capital.
The M23 is led by Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed the “Terminator”, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers a decade ago.
The ICC sentenced his co-accused and former boss Thomas Lubanga to 14 years in jail on Tuesday.
The mutineers are Tutsi ex-rebels who were integrated into the regular army in 2009 as part of a peace deal that followed their failed 2008 offensive on Goma, under the command of Tutsi leader Laurent Nkunda.
But they mutinied in April, demanding better pay and the full implementation of the March 23, 2009 peace deal for which they are named.
Some commentators however argue that Ntaganda and his men are actually flexing their military muscle to clinch further rights over the area’s lucrative mines.
The DR Congo government and a UN panel of sanctions experts have said Rwanda is supplying arms and fighters to the rebels.
Rwanda has denied involvement and in turn accuses Kinshasa of renewing cooperation with Rwandan Hutu rebels who have been based in eastern DRC since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.