Kabila halts military operations in east Congo

Thu Apr 12, 2012 11:05am EDT

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* Suspension follows rash of army desertions

* Government says has civilian population in mind

KINSHASA, April 12 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila has suspended military operations against rebels in the eastern North and South Kivu provinces following a rash of desertions in the army, the government and army said on Thursday.

The eastern region of the vast central African country remains unstable nearly ten years after the signing of a peace deal ending a wider war, and Congolese troops and U.N. peacekeepers regularly clash with several rebel groups.

Earlier this month, hundreds of government troops abandoned their posts, sparking violent clashes within the army and allowing rebels to seize territory.

The main military operation in the east under the code name Amani Leo, meaning "peace today" in Swahili, was being suspended on the president's orders, government and army spokesmen said.

Kabila, who was re-elected last November in polls widely criticised as flawed by international observers and foreign governments including the United States, announced the move during a speech in the northern town of Goma on Wednesday.

He further said he would arrest a serving army general, Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.

"Amani Leo will come to an end but will take another form, which has yet to be established," Colonel Sylvain Ekenge told Reuters, referring to the operations involving 26 regiments spread across the Kivu provinces.

The Amani Leo plan, which began in 2009, has had some success in targeting Rwandan FDLR rebels.

But NGOs also blame the fighting for displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire and accuse Congolese soldiers of human rights abuses including mass rape.

Former rebel Ntaganda - who had previously declared that he was second in command of the Amani Leo operation - has not been seen since the announcement that he would face arrest.

Government spokesman Richard Muyej said Kabila's decision to suspend the eastern military operations was taken with the civilian population in mind.

"It's to consolidate calm ... The population has suffered a lot. When there are bullets flying people can't go about their lives," Muyej said. But the armed forces would remain vigilant against the rebels. "We're not going to let these bandits circulate," he said. (Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Mark Heinrich)

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