The Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday warned the leaders of an army defection, including former rebels close to wanted former warlord Bosco Ntaganda, to fall into line or face justice.
One of the three officers known to have deserted was a regimental commander and two were former members of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebel group which was integrated into the armed forces in 2009 following a peace accord with Kinshasa.
Up to 300 soldiers reportedly also took part.
"Irregular movements" of "undisciplined troops" had taken place in the eastern Nord and Sud Kivu provinces, a government statement said.
Kinshasa "invites the leaders... to strictly observe military discipline and refrain from acts likely to expose them to the rigours of both national and international justice," government spokesman Richard Muyej Mangeze said in the statement.
In Sud Kivu, three officers defected with a number of men in the Baraka and Uvira districts, armed forces spokesman Sylvain Ekenge said.
"There was an exchange of fire, we have neutralised them, we have recovered the arms and vehicles and some soldiers who had defected have returned. The three officers fled alone into the bush," he said, making no further mention of any soldiers accompanying them.
In neighbouring Nord Kivu, defections took place in Pinga and Nyabiondo. The rebel Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda and the Free and Sovereign Congo militia had taken over over the positions, Ekenge said.
Army units were "on their way to retake these two areas", Ekenge said, adding that there had been "attempted defections" in two other areas, Nyonvera et Katale, in Nord Kivu.
He did not give the precise number of regular soldiers who had defected, but army and UN sources said it could be between 200 and 300.
"For the moment we don't know their motivation," Ekenge said.
But he refused to link the defections to Bosco Ntaganda, the former CNDP leader nicknamed "the Terminator", who has been wanted since 2006 on an International Criminal Court arrest warrant.
Ntaganda is accused of recruiting child soldiers in 2002 and 2003 while in the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), a rebellion led by Thomas Lubanga.
Despite rumours that Ntaganda had taken to the bush with dozens of heavily armed men, Ekenge said he remained in the Nord Kivu city of Goma.
If he was involved "he would not be there and the others in the bush", he said.
Officially in charge of the integration of the CNDP into the Congolese armed forces, some non-governmental organisations and UN reports say Ntaganda is in fact the number two on army operations against various foreign and Congolese armed groups still active in Nord and Sud Kivu.
In August 2006, the ICC issued a warrant against Ntaganda, accusing him of war crimes including the use of children under the age of 15 to fight and commit atrocities.
Prosecutors announced at the same time that they would ask judges to add rape and murder charges to earlier accusations.
The ICC last month found Lubanga guilty of using child soldiers during a conflict in the eastern DRC's Ituri region, in which rights groups say some 60,000 people lost their lives between 1999 and 2003.
Kinshasa has refused to arrest Ntaganda, who is a general in its army, on the grounds that peace is more important than justice.© ANP/AFP