February 27, 2015 / 6:08 PM / in 3 years

Congo army drives rebels from eastern hills in fierce fighting

KIRUMBA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Congolese government forces ousted rebels from hills in heavy fighting in North Kivu province on Friday, an army spokesman said, cranking up a campaign to crush an insurgency at the heart of two decades of conflict.

The rebel ranks contain remnants of fighters involved in neighboring Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. Since moving into chaotic eastern Congo, they have sought to exploit the region’s rich deposits of gold, diamonds and tin and waged periodic war with the Kinshasa government and other armed groups.

Around 100 soldiers backed by presidential guard troops fired machine guns from jeeps at positions of rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who responded with automatic weapons fire, a Reuters witness said.

By 1400 GMT (0900 ET), the army had secured most of the hills and rebels retreated deeper into the forest near Kirumba in Virunga National Park, an army spokesman said. The park abuts the border of Congo and Rwanda and is famous for its mountain gorillas.

There was no information on casualties in the fighting.

Millions died of conflict, hunger and disease during a war in the east between 1998 and 2003 and the region remains plagued by armed factions.

President Joseph Kabila formally launched the anti-rebel offensive on Jan. 29 but combat did not begin in earnest until Tuesday in neighboring South Kivu province, where the army says it has captured several rebel strongholds.

The army began action on Wednesday to clear rebels from North Kivu where the bulk of the 1,400 fighters were believed to operate, army spokesman Leon Kasonga said.

“We have captured seven FDLR, among them a major .... They don’t resist on the ground because our dominance is established,” he said.

Analysts said the rebels would avoid large-scale battles that could risk defeat and instead retreat into remote hills and forests they know well after decades of fighting.

Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg/Mark Heinrich

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