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336 armed fighters surrender to UN, Congolese forces

KIGALI, 9 Nov 2005 (IRIN) - Since UN and government troops began a joint operation last week to flush out Hutu Rwanda rebels and other illegal armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) up to 336 armed men have surrendered, a UN military spokesman said on Tuesday.

"The operation so far has been successful and it's still going on," Lt-Col Thierry Provendier, the military spokesman for the UN Mission in DRC, said.

"Dozens of Rwandans rebels have surrendered and all their camps have been destroyed," he added.

He said 17 of the 336 fighters captured were Rwandans and the rest Congolese Mayi-Mayi militiamen based in and around the Virunga National Park in Congo?s North Kivu Province. They surrendered with 162 guns.

However, officials in Rwanda - whose president in 2004 threatened to invade Congo again if the Hutu rebels are not forcefully disarmed - remain skeptical about the operation.

"Indicators of success will be measured by how many people and weapons they capture," Richard Sezibera, Rwanda's special envoy to the Great Lakes, said. "That number is, so far, too small."

The operation, which started on Monday, is an attempt to disarm all foreign combatants in DRC. It follows a government deadline of 30 September for combatants to leave or be force out.

Two thousand Congolese and 500 UN troops have been deployed to the park. They are supported by MONUC attack helicopters and armoured personnel carriers.

The UN estimates that 15,000 Rwandan and Ugandan rebels are based in the lawless east of the Congo. The largest and most powerful of these groups, les Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, has been at the centre of the conflicts in the Great Lakes region since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In the 11 years since then, neighboring Uganda and Rwanda have twice sent their armies into eastern Congo to hunt down the rebels. This prompted two wars in that country that drew in other African countries.

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