KINSHASA (Reuters) - Twenty five mutineers loyal to a renegade general have been killed in clashes with the army in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the government said on Monday.
The east of the central African country remains unstable nearly a decade after the formal end of a vicious civil war which sucked in neighbouring countries and left millions dead.
The region has been swept by fresh fighting in recent weeks after hundreds of troops defected from the army over issues including poor pay and living conditions and in support for Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
Ntaganda had previously fought the government as part of the Rwandan-backed CNDP rebel movement, before signing a peace accord and integrating into the army in 2009.
The defectors loyal to Ntaganda and another mutineer, Colonel Sultani Makenga, were killed after attempting an assault on the town of Bunagana in North Kivu province on Saturday, government spokesman Lambert Mende said.
“They were repulsed and during the fighting they lost 25 guys ... (government forces) may have had injuries, but no deaths,” Mende said by telephone.
Mende said the failed attack had been carried out with support from fighters from the Rwandan FDLR rebel group, which has been operating in Congo for more than 15 years and is accused of carrying out widespread human rights abuses.
“They are hand in hand (with the FDLR) ... For Makenga and Ntaganda and the others who have criminal records, they must be arrested, we do not negotiate with criminals,” Mende stated, accusing the mutineers of forcibly recruiting minors.
Last week Human Rights Watch accused Ntaganda of again using child soldiers in his fight against the Congolese authorities - one of the alleged crimes for which he is sought by the ICC.
The possibility that Ntaganda and Makenga are operating alongside the FDLR is a further twist in the complex and ever shifting web of alliances in eastern Congo.
The pair’s CNDP rebel group received heavy backing from Rwanda in order to fight the FDLR before being integrated into the Congolese armed forces in 2009.
Rwanda has maintained a strong influence in eastern Congo in recent years, citing the need to tackle the FDLR - which was linked to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and is bent on overthrowing Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
Some analysts say Rwanda has overstated the FDLR threat and uses it as an excuse to maintain lucrative interests in mining in eastern Congo, a charge repeatedly denied by Kagame.
Last week the Congolese government said that the Congolese and Rwandan governments would share information in an effort to tackle the FDLR threat, but stopped short of announcing joint military operations.
On Monday the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR announced that one of its staff had been killed after gunmen broke into his home in the eastern city of Goma, although it remains unclear who was behind the killings.