KAYNA, Congo — Rebels were pulling back their forces from the front lines to allow talks with the army, their spokesman said Tuesday, as retreating army soldiers battled mobs of spear-wielding militiamen.
Streams of machine-gun fire crackled through the rural hilltop village of Kayna all day as so-called Mai Mai militias attacked government soldiers who had been fleeing a rebel advance farther south. The army reported similar clashes with the militia in Kirumba, a few miles farther north.
Tuesday's violence marked another low in the complex crisis that is Congo. It also has dealt a severe blow to the army, which relies on help from the Mai Mai in its broader war with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said Tuesday that his group would immediately withdraw 25 miles from hot spots around the northern towns of Kiwanja and Kanyabayonga to allow rebels and Congolese army officials to meet today.
The meeting near Kanyabayonga "will examine the establishment of zones of separation between their two armies, in order to prevent any possibility of confrontation," Bisimwa said in a statement.
Nkunda told U.N. envoy Olusegun Obasanjo over the weekend he was committed to a cease-fire and U.N. efforts to end the fighting. But his troops have been gobbling up more territory in the remote hills north of Goma by the day.
Fighting between the army and Nkunda's men since August has forced hundreds of thousands of people from homes into crowded displaced camps. The United Nations puts the total refugee figure at 250,000.
Nkunda launched a rebellion in 2004, saying it was to protect ethnic Tutsis from Hutu militias who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide left more than 500,000 Tutsis and others slaughtered. But critics say he is more interested in power and Congo's mineral wealth.
Congo has the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops, but the peacekeepers have been unable to either stop the fighting or protect civilians.