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Congo's army continues slow advance

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NICK LONG | July 17, 2013 02:26 PM EST | AP

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GOMA, Congo — Congo's government forces continued their slow advance in a fourth day of fighting against M23 rebels near the eastern Congolese city of Goma.

An intelligence officer said front-line units had moved forward 300 meters (328 yards) by mid-afternoon after two hours of shelling on both sides. Congolese army lieutenant Kandu Matata Elie said M23 started the fighting on Wednesday with a salvo of mortar bombs at midday.

The rebels appeared to be targeting three tanks in the village of Kanyaruchinya and two shells landed close by, but after a brief panic among the government troops, they responded with sustained tank and artillery fire. After about an hour of artillery fire government troops followed the tanks forward.

The M23 rebels, who seized Goma last November but eventually withdrew, now seem to be heavily outgunned by the army, which pounded their positions with helicopters, tanks and artillery.

A report by the United Nations panel of experts studying Congo, made public in June, alleges that Rwandan soldiers have joined the M23 in recent months, a claim that Rwanda adamantly denies.

North Kivu, a highly fertile and densely populated region rich in minerals, has since 1996 been wracked by repeated rebellions. Most of the M23 leaders, who launched their rebellion last year and now have about 2,000 in their group, took part in previous rebellions led by ethnic Tutsis.

Peace talks between the Congolese government and the M23 stalled again last week as the head of the M23 delegation, Rene Abandi, complained that the head of the government delegation had left the talks.

The Congolese army's recent successes against rebels have prompted euphoric scenes in Goma with civilians waving leafy branches staging victory runs on the outskirts of town. On Tuesday the government said 120 rebels had been killed in the fighting since Sunday, a claim that could not be independently verified.

Fouraha Kanamu, a 40-year-old woman who has had to flee the recent fighting told The Associated Press she would be very happy to see her village liberated from the rebels and she was hopeful the army could do it.

Jules Akili, who traveled 32 kilometers (20 miles) through the M23 zone on Wednesday and crossed to the government side told AP he had seen few M23 fighters along the route, which had been guarded by rebel police.

The United Nations mission in Congo (MONUSCO) said Wednesday it had not been targeted by M23 during the past four days of fighting and had not taken part in the fighting.

The South African National Defense Force (SANDF) which has a battalion deployed with MONUSCO issued a statement late Tuesday denying its troops had been fighting M23 and stating that the Congolese army's attacks on the had been " premeditated", a comment that runs counter to the government line that its army has been responding to attacks.