Rebel fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo seized control Sunday of more towns in the country's east, but said they would cede most of their gains to UN peacekeepers and police.
"We have seized Rubare, Rutshuru, Kalengera and Kako," said rebel leader Colonel Sultani Makenga at Bunagana, the border post with Uganda.
"Even though we have taken these districts, we will withdraw and leave them to MONUSCO and national police," added Makenga, who was wearing a regular army uniform with a pistol at his hip, surrounded by around 30 well-armed bodyguards.
Known as M23, the rebels are mutinous Tutsi troops who abandoned the regular army earlier this year in a dispute over pay and conditions.
They said they took the Nord-Kivu province towns of Rutshuru, Ntamugenga and Rubare, less than 10 kilometres by road from the provincial capital Goma, shortly after midnight.
According to M23 spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the rebels faced no opposition from the Congolese army, known as the FARDC.
"Our men have just taken the town of Rutshuru. On Saturday evening the FARDC came down to our position at Mbuzi. We decided to pursue them and they lost Ntamugenag, then we came down to Rubare," Kazarama told AFP.
Sporadic gunfire was later heard in Rutshuru but it may have been celebratory shots fired into the air.
The gains came two days after the rebels captured Bunagana, after the army led a botched offensive to try to dislodge them from their hideouts in the surrounding green hills.
But according to the M23 spokesman and local civilians, the attack quickly turned into a defeat for the army, with 600 troops dumping weapons and supplies and fleeing across the border into Uganda.
A UN peacekeeper from India was killed in the fighting.
Despite pledging to withdraw from the other towns, Makenga said the rebels would keep Bunagana "because we need our enemies to be far away from our positions.
"It is for the government of Kinshasa to determine if it wants peace, (or) if it wants to stop fighting us. If they want war, they will continue to attack us and we will continue to retaliate," he said.
"We are not there to take the towns but to get our voices heard," he added.
The government knew what their main demands were, he said: that Congolese refugees in Rwanda be allowed to return; a proper democracy and the confirmation of their military ranks they previously had within the army.
On Sunday, eight armoured vehicles from the United Nations mission in DR Congo fled Rutshuru for a UN base five kilometres away in Kiwanja, where many local residents were sheltering in a camp for displaced people.
Fighting in the resource-rich region between government troops and the rebels has intensified in recent days.
The Tutsi soldiers had been integrated into the army but started defecting in April and formed M23, which is short for the March 23 Movement.
A recent UN report said Rwandan officials had provided direct support to M23, including weapons, ammunition and recruits, charges Rwanda denies.
Before taking Bunagana and Rutshuru, the rebels had been living on the hills of Virunga national park, home to two active volcanoes and many of the world's few remaining mountain gorillas, and resisted weeks of army shelling.
The mutineers are close to General Jean Bosco Ntaganda, who since 2006 has been sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes including recruiting child soldiers.
He is accused of leading the mutiny, though others in the movement deny ties.
The ongoing violence has displaced more than 200,000 people and driven more than 20,000 refugees into Rwanda and Uganda.