BUKAVU, Congo (AP) — Government forces retook control of this strategic city from renegade troops Wednesday, appearing to halt a military crisis in eastern Congo that threatened to derail a peace process in the vast country.
But U.N. officials warned that while the fighting may have stopped for now, Congo's fledgling transitional government still faces major challenges if it is to resolve the underlying political issues that led to the outbreak of violence in Bukavu.
Thousands of cheering residents — some beating drums, others honking horns — turned out to greet soldiers as they marched into Bukavu, regaining control of the city from troops loyal to renegade commander Col. Jules Mutebutsi.
Mutebutsi and the bulk of his troops fled after dark Tuesday.
But almost as soon as the celebrations in the city died down, soldiers and civilians began looting.
At one point, U.N. soldiers fired into the air to disperse civilians who gathered around a huge cache of weapons seized by the peacekeepers.
In a neighborhood that had been a Mutebutsi stronghold, the looting targeted the homes of Congolese Tutsi, a minority known as the Banyamulenge, according to U.N. spokesman Sebastien Lapierre.
Mutebutsi is a Banyamulenge. He and another renegade commander, Brig. Gen. Laurent Nkunda, seized Bukavu on June 2, forcing Brig. Gen. Mbuza Mabe, the region's army commander, and his troops to flee.
The renegade leaders accused Mabe of persecuting the Banyamulenge, both civilians and those in the army. The United Nations is investigating.
Congolese media reported Mabe telling residents that the army had been divided because of what happened in Bukavu. "But we are now united and should forget our ethnic differences," he said.
Nkunda's fighters withdrew Sunday from Bukavu, heading to neighboring North Kivu province. He told The Associated Press he pulled out because the government had agreed to investigate the abuse allegations.
But Mutebutsi's smaller force remained in Bukavu and fought for several hours with Mabe's forces Monday and Tuesday.
U.N. officials said the government had to speed up the process of integrating former rebels into the new army to prevent further uprisings.
"Integration of the army has to continue," Lapierre said.
The transitional government took office a year ago, ending a five-year war that drew in six foreign armies. An estimated 3.3 million people perished, mainly through war-induced disease and famine.
Both Nkunda and Mutebutsi were commanders in the main rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy. The rebel group drew many of its members from the Banyamulenge community. Nkunda and Mutebutsi were integrated into the new national army, but later fell out with their commanders.
Col. Simba Hussein, Mabe's deputy, said Mutebutsi fled to the Ruzizi Plains south of Bukavu late Tuesday.
"It's the beginning of life on the run for him," Hussein told the AP.
He said his soldiers briefly fought with a few dozen of Mutebutsi's remaining forces on the outskirts of the city at dawn Wednesday. They then marched into Bukavu without facing any further resistance.
Eighteen renegade troops were captured and there were no government casualties, he added.
In Kinshasa, army spokesman Col. Leon Richard Kasonga said the army's priorities were now "to consolidate peace and re-establish order."
But Hamadoun Toure, the U.N. spokesman in Kinshasa, warned that Congolese forces must "avoid the settling of scores."
"It's very important to remind all the Congolese that they are in the same boat and they either make it or they sink together," Toure said.
Although most of Congo has remained relatively peaceful since the war ended, fighting between former rebels and rival tribal fighters has plagued the eastern and northeastern parts of Africa's third-largest country.
The fighting in Bukavu also exacerbated already tense relations between Congo and Rwanda. Following the outbreak of fighting in Bukavu, Congo accused Rwanda of supporting Mutebutsi and Nkunda, their wartime allies. Rwanda has denied the allegations.
Rwanda and Uganda helped spark the Congolese civil war when they invaded the country in 1998 to back Congolese rebels. They accused Congo of supporting rebels from their countries and threatening regional security.
There are 10,800 U.N. troops deployed in Congo, 1,000 of which are in Bukavu.
AP reporters Eddy Isango and Daniel Balint-Kurti in Kinshasa contributed to this report.