U.N., Congo attack Burundi rebels ahead of drive against Rwandan FDLR

By Bienvenu Bukumanya KINSHASA (Reuters) - United Nations and Congolese troops launched strikes on Monday against remnants of a Burundian rebel group based in the rugged borderlands of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a U.N. military spokesman said. The strikes targeted the National Liberation Forces (FNL), but a U.N. diplomat said they were mainly aimed at clearing the way for an offensive against another group, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which has been at the heart of years of conflict in Central Africa's Great Lakes region. Attack helicopters from Congo's U.N. mission, known as MONUSCO, began bombarding positions held by the FNL near the village of Ruhoha in South Kivu province on Monday morning. The air assault was followed by a ground offensive by Congolese forces and members of a special U.N. intervention brigade mandated to take on armed groups. "These attacks allowed us to capture all the bases in the region held by these Burundian rebels," MONUSCO military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Felix Prosper Basse said, adding that no U.N. or Congolese soldiers had been killed or wounded. The FNL is among several ethnic Hutu rebel groups that rose up to fight Burundi's Tutsi-led military government in a 1993-2005 civil war. Though it officially disarmed in 2009, pockets of FNL fighters remain in eastern Congo. Tensions are running high in Burundi, where the ruling coalition and its opponents are locked in a row over whether President Pierre Nkurunziza can run for a third term in office in elections this year. Earlier on Monday, Burundi's army said it had killed 95 attackers from an unidentified group based in neighbouring Congo that wants to launch ambushes to disrupt the polls. A U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday's strikes were intended primarily to free up positions from which MONUSCO and Congolese troops can attack the FDLR. "They (FNL) were occupying real estate (MONUSCO) needs to launch its operation against the FDLR," he told Reuters. MONUSCO helped defeat Congo's most powerful armed group, the M23 insurgency, in 2013, then unleashed a military campaign against all remaining armed groups operating in the mineral-rich east of the country. The FDLR, which includes former soldiers and Hutu militiamen responsible for carrying out Rwanda's 1994 genocide, failed to meet a January deadline to disarm and surrender. "MONUSCO has pre-positioned its troops and enablers to support offensive operations against the FDLR," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Monday.