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East Congo fighter says army backed militia battling rebels, raising questions about alliances

Nyenzi Kahuze's friends gave him a fetish they said would make him bulletproof in the battle against the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo. Now he lies with a gunshot wound to the head, begging to be treated by aid workers.

Groaning as he feebly tried to brush flies from his face, Kahuze said he and others from the Mai Mai militia also had been armed for battle by the Congolese army.

"The army gave us weapons and our mission was to destabilize the M23 rebels here at Kanyarucinya," he told The Associated Press.

Saturday's fighting broke a six-week lull in violence along the front line that separates the M23 and the government army in eastern Congo, a volatile region that is home to a myriad of armed groups who terrorize civilians.

The M23 rebel group routed the government army and swept past U.N. peacekeepers last November to briefly occupy the city of Goma, one of the country's biggest. The rebels are currently in peace talks with the government, though negotiations have been rocky.

The renewed violence raises the specter of a further deterioration in the area, and also prompts questions about alliances between armed groups and the government and who is really fighting whom.

M23 spokesman Kabasha Amani said his fighters were attacked Saturday by the Congolese army and the FDLR, Rwandan Hutu forces whose men include some who took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In a report leaked last weekend, U.N. experts on the Congo said some units of the government army have been collaborating with the FDLR.

However, Army spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli denied that it had been involved in the fighting, which he said had been between M23 rebels and the Mai Mai militia, an account backed by Kahuze, the wounded fighter. The Mai Mai militias take their name from the Swahili word for water, which some combatants believe can protect them from bullets.

The firefight took place only 200 meters (yards) from a United Nations peacekeepers' checkpoint, a neutral zone between the army and the M23.

A civilian from Kanyarucinya, Jean Marie Kerenda, told AP he had seen armed men in civilian clothes, some armed with Kalashnikovs and some with machetes, hiding behind his house early Saturday morning.

"I saw them rush at two M23 cadres and kill them with machetes, and then the shooting started," he said.

This was the first fighting at the front line between the M23 rebels and the government forces in six weeks, and it remains unclear what purpose the attack might have served. Rebel and government teams both returned to peace negotiations in Uganda in June. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported late last month that most of the items on the agenda have yet to be fully discussed.

"We're in peace negotiations in Kampala, but the government is preparing an offensive," M23's military spokesman, Vianney Kazarama said. "This attack was to probe our positions."

Kahuze, the wounded Mai Mai fighter, had his head stitched by a rebel doctor from the enemy armed group and was given a painkiller.

The Red Cross, though, was only allowed to intervene and treat him after a phone call was made to an M23 spokesman. Now a prisoner of war, M23 said Kahuze would be taken to a hospital in their zone.

"I'm just a civilian from Goma," he says. "I was tricked into this by my friends."