A rebel fighter shows off arms, captured from the Congolese army during a fight, at Bunagana
Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo seized the town of Rutshuru from fleeing government forces on Sunday, witnesses and a rebel spokesman said, a further embarrassment for the army after the insurgents captured a mineral transit town, reports Reuters.
The gains for the M23 rebel movement in volatile North Kivu province, on the eastern borderlands, risks dragging the vast, loosely governed central African state back into war.
They could also damage fragile relations with neighbouring Rwanda, which has repeatedly denied allegations that the rebels are receiving support from Kigali government officials.
The capture of Rutshuru opens the way for a possible rebel advance on Goma, the provincial capital about 70 km (43 miles) to the south.
The rebels on Friday seized Bunagana, an important mineral transit town, driving about 600 Congolese soldiers across the nearby border into neighbouring Uganda.
"We took control of the town of Rutshuru before noon and sent the (Congolese army) fleeing," Colonel Vianney Kazarama of the M23 rebel movement told Reuters by telephone on Sunday.
A German newspaper reporter and a local resident said they saw rebel fighters enter the town unopposed.
"I'm in Rutshuru. The FARDC (Congolese army) left this morning. M23 just took over, but there was no fighting," Simone Schlindwein, Great Lakes correspondent for Tageszeitung newspaper, said.
Congolese military and government officials were not immediately available to comment.
A spokesman for Congo's United Nations peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, said he had no information that the rebels had entered Rutshuru but said U.N. helicopter gunships had bombarded rebel positions not far from the town on Sunday.
"(The rebels) are advancing. That's for sure," Alex Essome told Reuters. "We've sent our attack helicopters to Rubare and Runyoni. We have already hit them there."
Kazarama said he had not heard of the air strikes on rebel-held areas.
Rutshuru resident Lucien Amoli said he saw between 200 and 300 rebel soldiers occupying the town centre in the early afternoon.
"The loyalist soldiers were shooting in the air when they left and the rebels were also shooting in the air when they entered the town," he said. "That went on for about 30 minutes, now everything is calm but we don't know for how long."
The M23 movement said on Saturday it would halt its advance if the government agreed to new peace talks. The insurgents, many of them army mutineers, take their name from a March 2009 peace deal that ended a previous rebellion in mineral-rich North Kivu, but which the rebels say has been broken.
Kinshasa has yet to respond to the latest rebel successes.
But in a memo seen by Reuters on Sunday the defence ministry called for renewed operations to arrest senior M23 figures including its leader Colonel Sultani Makenga and General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
"This represents a big blow to the Congolese army and the United Nations peacekeeping mission," said Jason Stearns, an independent Congo analyst and author. "It will strengthen the M23's hand in negotiations, if those happen any time soon."
The U.N. Security Council on Friday condemned attacks by M23 fighters on peacekeepers in the area after an Indian soldier was killed in the attack on Bunagana.