RWINDI, Congo — Rebels in Congo pulled hundreds of fighters back from several front-line positions as promised on Wednesday in what the U.N. said was a welcome step toward brokering peace in the volatile nation.
Elsewhere, however, U.N. forces on patrol exchanged fire with pro-government Mai Mai militiamen who attacked them with machine-gun fire in Kibitutu, a village about 45 miles north of the regional capital, Goma.
Further north, two charred bodies and scattered debris from looted shops littered the red earth roads of the army-occupied hilltop village of Kirumba, one day after the army clashed with the Mai Mai, a group normally allied with the government. The violence was a testament to the chaotic nature of Congo's latest war.
Years of sporadic violence in eastern Congo intensified in August, and fighting between the army and fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has displaced at least 250,000 people. Nkunda says he is protecting Tutsis from Hutus who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. But critics say he is more interested in power and Congo's mineral wealth.
Nkunda told U.N. envoy Olusegun Obasanjo over the weekend he was committed to a cease-fire and U.N. peace efforts. But his troops continued to gobble up territory earlier this week in the remote hills north of Goma.
In a turnaround, rebels announced Tuesday that their fighters would immediately withdraw 25 miles from hotspots north of Goma to prevent further fighting.
U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich confirmed Wednesday's pullback and called it "a positive step." He said rebels withdrew from three fronts around Kanyabayonga, about 80 miles north of Goma.
An Associated Press reporter verified the withdrawal on one of the fronts just south of Kanyabayonga at Rwindi, the northern headquarters of Virunga National Park, home to some of the world's last mountain gorillas.
On Wednesday, Rwindi's main road was empty, with rebels visible only a few dozen miles to the south at a park station checkpoint that had been abandoned by rangers. Herds of elephants roamed fields of pristine green savannah grass in the area. Baboons scurried across empty roads.
The pullback could pave the way for talks on ending the crisis, which has forced nearly 300,000 people from their homes since fighting between the army and Nkunda's rebels broke out in August.
Congo's war is profoundly complex and will be difficult to solve. Much of the countryside is lawless, at the mercy of militias or anyone with a gun.
The U.N.'s Dietrich said Mai Mai militiamen pointed their guns at U.N. peacekeepers who were patrolling Kibitutu in armored personnel carriers on Wednesday and asked them for money. Then "suddenly they started to fire from three different directions, and we fired back," he said.
No peacekeepers were wounded, but the vehicles were struck by bullets.
Congo has the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops, but the force has been unable to stop the fighting or protect civilians.
The U.N. Security Council is expected to approve a French-sponsored resolution on Thursday that would provide an additional 3,100 soldiers to beef up the U.N. peacekeeping force on a temporary basis.
In Kirumba and Kayna, Mai Mai clashed Tuesday with the army, apparently for retreating from the rebels and harassing civilians on the way.
Angry residents have complained the army has looted their homes instead of protecting them.
On Wednesday, a few residents trickled back to Kirumba. Oded Machozi, 24, said his pharmacy had been wiped out by looting.
"The army are like wild animals," he said. "They were angry over (Tuesday's) fighting, and they began to pillage systematically."
The frail wooden doors of dozens of shops had been ripped open beside the town's main road. Trash littered the area.
The village was almost deserted, but hundreds of soldiers sat on the main road with their families, cooking food in open iron pots near two armored personnel carriers. An old tank belching black smoke raced up and down the road.
Outside two homes scattered with Ugandan beer bottles lay the bodies of two men. Soldiers said they were Mai Mai and had been shot and then burned by angry soldiers. A charred umbrella stuck out of one dead man, his clenched fist raised.
"They attacked us for nothing," said soldier Gibril Bindu, staring down at the corpse. "Our men were angry, so they set them on fire after they shot them."
"We can't fight with the rebels in front of us and the Mai Mai behind us," said Dido Dieudonne, a 26-year-old soldier in Kirumba. "We have enough problems already. The Mai Mai are supposed to be on our side. They are Congolese like us. We don't know what's happening."
In the past two days, soldiers could be seen leaving Kanyabayonga, which rebels had advanced to but not taken. But on Wednesday, many appeared to be returning with reinforcements, pushing some supplies on makeshift wooden bicycles.
At a hospital in Kayna, three miles south of Kirumba, seven soldiers and two civilians nursed gunshot wounds.
Local staff from the French charity Doctors Without Borders said soldiers were still looting Wednesday and had taken the majority of the group's medicine stocks.
Protesters at a crowded refugee camp in Goma greeted Mark Malloch Brown, Britain's minister for Africa, on Wednesday carrying signs in English — a language not widely spoken in the region — criticizing U.N. peacekeepers and proclaiming they were "tired of life in the camps."
Brown told reporters he supported U.N. recommendations that the peacekeeping force be strengthened, but he said negotiations were the only way to end the crisis.
"What the international community can do is support strongly domestic cooperation to solve the problem politically," Brown said. "If there is not a political engagement between the government and General Nkunda, there will not be a solution."