Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo said on Monday they had abandoned a key military base and retreated into the bush but vowed to continue their fight despite four days of defeats by the Congolese army.
The victories by government forces backed by a new U.N. intervention brigade have boosted a belief that the army, which is notoriously undisciplined and under-supplied, could finally quell a 20-month insurgency by so-called M-23 rebels which has displaced tens of thousands of people in the mineral-rich area.
France called for a U.N. Security Council meeting on Monday to discuss the situation and condemned the return to fighting in which a Tanzanian peacekeeper was killed on Sunday.
The United States also warned on Monday that renewed fighting in mineral-rich eastern Congo risked dragging neighboring countries into the conflict.
Fighting flared on Friday following a two-month lull after peace talks in neighboring Uganda broke down when M23 demanded a full amnesty for its leaders. President Joseph Kabila last week ruled out a blanket pardon.
The rebels were forced to abandon their former strongholds in Kibumba, Kiwanja and Rutshuru over the weekend. Rutshuru became the main rebel base after a string of victories over the Congolese army last year.
Lawrence Kanyuka, deputy spokesman for M23, told Reuters by telephone that the rebels withdrew overnight from Rumangabo, a former Congolese army base they seized last year.
Kanyuka said their forces remained nearby and denied reports that some M23 leaders had fled to neighboring Rwanda.
"This is not the first time we have withdrawn. It is not the end of the line for us," Kanyuka said. "We are still in Congo. We are Congolese. We are fighting for our land and our survival."
In Rutshuru, jubilant crowds welcomed Congolese soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers who began patrolling the town on Monday, a Reuters reporter said. The Congolese army has occupied a building that had served as the rebel headquarters.
A Congo army spokesman told Reuters government forces were awaiting orders to attack rebels who had fled towards Bunagana, a town near the Ugandan and Rwandan borders.
U.N. officials have accused Rwanda of supporting the rebels, charges which Kigali strongly denies. Rwanda said on Friday that Congolese government shells had landed in its territory and warned it could respond military - making army operations near the border extremely sensitive.
Congolese military sources say M23 has been weakened by desertions, with at least 40 rebels taking advantage of a corridor created by the government to allow then to flee over the weekend.
M23 began in early 2012 as a mutiny by soldiers demanding the government implement the terms of a 2009 peace deal signed with a previous Rwanda-backed rebel group, many of whose members had been integrated into the army.
In another area of eastern Congo, about 10,000 Congolese refugees have fled into Uganda to escape fighting between a new rebel faction called M18 and local militias, Red Cross and military officials said on Monday.