RUGARI, Congo Explosions and machine-gun fire echoed Friday through the hills of east Congo, where government troops battled rebels for a third day amid a deepening humanitarian crisis the United Nations says has displaced nearly 200,000 people in the past few months.
Army Col. Jean-Claude Mosala said his troops had forced insurgents loyal to Laurent Nkunda to retreat after rebels pushed into the village of Rugari earlier this week and began firing on passing army vehicles running food and ammunition to government soldiers. Rugari is about 20 miles north of the regional capital, Goma.
Shelling and sporadic volleys of automatic weapons fire were audible around Rugari from early morning until noon, when dozens of army soldiers could be seen packing up bombs, mortars and a multiple rocket launcher they had positioned near a main road to shell Nkunda's forces in hills to the east.
Maj. Viveck Goyal, a spokesman for the 18,000-member peacekeeping force, said "Nkunda elements are being pushed away."
No casualty reports were available, but an Associated Press reporter saw one soldier carrying a wounded comrade on his back down a main road.
The rebels could not be reached for comment.
Congo's government has struggled with little success to establish authority over the lawless east, particularly North Kivu province, where the army and at least three other factions control their own patches of territory, openly manning roadblocks on dirt tracks that wind through hundreds of steep hills.
Nkunda defected from the army several years ago and formed his own militia soon after Congo's war ended in 2002, claiming he needed to protect his minority Tutsi ethnic group from Rwandan Hutu rebels who have occupied forests in east Congo since fleeing Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which their leaders helped organize. More than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the mass Rwandan slaughter 13 years ago.
Fighting in Congo since August has battered North Kivu, displacing more than 176,000 people, according to U.N. figures. The region has been insecure for years, however, and the latest violence has pushed the total number of displaced in the province to around 800,000.
On Wednesday, Nkunda fighters attacked an army base in Rutshuru, 18 miles north of Rugari. That attack forced thousands of people in Rutshuru to flee, "many for a second or third time," the U.N. World Food Program said in a statement.
Though most Rutshuru residents returned soon after, "the constant forced movement is wearing down the survival strategies of a population that is already extremely vulnerable," WFP said.
Last week, tens of thousands of people fled two camps on the rocky volcanic plains of Mugunga, east of Goma, after Nkunda fighters attacked a nearby army position. Most residents returned, but found their temporary huts looted, apparently by renegade soldiers.
About 4,000 U.N. troops are deployed in North Kivu with a mandate to protect civilians. Militarily, they have helped defend key population centers, including Goma. But they have failed to stop fighting between the rebels and the army, neither of which appears strong enough to secure victory.
The U.N. force in Congo is the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. Though violence has persisted in east Congo, the force has helped maintain security in the vast mineral-rich country since the end of a 1998-2002 war that drew in the armies of more than a half-dozen African nations.