KINSHASA, Congo -- Congo's newest rebel movement is threatening to attack the army in a major eastern town that the insurgents had handed over to police and United Nations peacekeepers.
A statement Friday from the M23 rebels calls for the soldiers to leave Rutshuru and neighboring Kiwanja or "be held responsible for all related consequences."
Rebels had taken Rutshuru Sunday without a fight as soldiers retreated before their advance and U.N. peacekeepers chose not to fire from armored personnel carriers. The rebels vacated the town voluntarily Monday, warning the army not to return. They said they were retreating to the Congo-Uganda border crossing of Bunagana to await word on the government's willingness to negotiate.
Congo's government has said it will negotiate only with Rwanda, which is accused of supporting the rebels. Rwanda denies the charges but agreed this week at a meeting on the sidelines of an African Union summit to the creation of "a neutral international force to eradicate" all rebels and militias in eastern Congo and to patrol the Congo-Rwanda border.
Congo already has the world's largest peacekeeping force of some 20,000 troops and police that cost nearly $1.5 billion in 2011. It was unclear how another international force could succeed where the U.N. has failed in supporting the Congolese army's attempts to bring peace to mineral-rich eastern Congo, where more than a dozen local militias and foreign rebel groups terrorize the population.
On Thursday, the U.N. confirmed that it had deployed its helicopter gunships to bombard several M23 positions.
Congo's 150,000-strong army is demoralized, ill-equipped, badly paid and has proven no match for a few hundred motivated and well-armed rebels.
East Congo's conflict is a hangover from Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Hundreds who participated in the killings of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus escaped into Congo and still fight there today. The M23 rebels are the latest incarnation of a group of Congolese Tutsi rebels set up to fight Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo.
Since the movement began in April, more than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes, with 20,000 fleeing across borders to Rwanda and Uganda.