Democratic Republic of Congo government forces, which launched an offensive against FDLR rebels in the east of the country a month ago, has been successful in driving the militants out of parts of North and South Kivu provinces, a military spokesman said.
Congolese army spokesman General Leon Richard Kasonga said during the weekend the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) - a Rwandan rebel movement whose presence in Congo dates back nearly 20 years - has been driven out of two dozen localities in North and South Kivu provinces.
Kasonga said the Congolese army had captured all its military objectives identified in its initial plan. He said they also "neutralized" 185 FDLR combatants, and other armed groups in the process.
DRC Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda said last week the army is continuing to pursue the FDLR in the forests of eastern Congo.
A health worker at Kibirizi, located on the edge of the vast Virunga forest where many of the FDLR are hiding, told VOA there has been fighting nearby and one place General Kasonga mentioned, Kahumiro, is still off limits to civilians.
The health worker said there has been a lot of shooting, and he does not know if the FDLR has been dispersed, but there is still a sense of insecurity in the forest and on certain roads.
FDLR combatants playing cards with civilians in Lusoa village, North Kivu, DRC, March 28, 2015. (Nicholas Long for VOA News)
Jason Ntawiha, a local spokesman for the ethnic Hutu community, said the offensive has had limited impact around Kiwanja, another town inside the zone of operations.
Ntawiha said the people expected more of an impact by the military offensive. He said people had hoped the rebels would be completely neutralized. Instead, he said the operation appears to have stalled, rebels are still occupying the positions they held before, and there has been an upsurge in kidnappings and banditry.
The FDLR is one of about 30 armed groups active in eastern Congo.
Ntawiha is concerned the other armed groups have not been targeted by the offensive.
In some areas VOA visited, the FDLR forces are still visibly in control. One such area is near Kanyabayonga, in Lubero territory.
The FDLR did not want to give interviews or pose for photos, but they allowed VOA to pass through and talk to area residents.
One resident, in speaking with a driver for VOA, said a local FDLR commander was having a drink in a bar just a few yards away.
At the village of Birundule, a local official said he had to collaborate with the FDLR, and a local chief said while the rebels were taxing the population, they otherwise were not causing trouble.
However, a villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA the FDLR is causing trouble elsewhere.
The villager confirmed reports that, increasingly, the FDLR’s tactic is not to loot villages where they are living, but to go and loot villages some distance away. The villager said people in Birundule are ready for the Congolese army to recapture the village.
Birundule is an example of FDLR "governance." About 50 people from a neighboring village, FDLR-controlled Buleusa, have fled to Kanyabayonga in the past few weeks. They said the FDLR replaced the local chief, and about a dozen young men who opposed the rebels have disappeared.
On Wednesday local radio reported FDLR rebels killed five people in the same area, including a chief and two of his sons.
The DRC army is pursuing its offensive alone, after the U.N. mission in Congo refused to participate because of alleged human rights violations by two Congolese generals, who are leading the push.
Meanwhile, MONUSCO chief Martin Kobler called for collaboration to begin again between the DRC government and the U.N. mission in the anti-FDLR offensive.