DR Congo army captures last stronghold of M23 rebels
10/30/2013 21:29 GMT
by Albert Kambale
KINSHASA, October 30, 2013 (AFP) - DR Congo troops on Wednesday captured the last stronghold of M23 rebels in the troubled east of the country, raising hopes of a return to the negotiating table.
Bunagana, the rebels' main base located in the lush green hills near the border with Uganda, "is completely under our control", government spokesman Lambert Mende told AFP, adding that the final battle for the town had begun early in the morning.
The rebels either fled into the mountains or crossed into neighbouring Uganda after the rout, Mende said.
An official of the UN mission in the country also confirmed that troops had taken control of the town some 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Goma, a major mining hub and the capital of North Kivu province.
Troops and tanks had surrounded the nearby town of Rutshuru on Tuesday in preparation for Wednesday's assault, the army said.
The fall of Bunagana comes a day after Martin Kobler, the head of the peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO, declared that the push by troops signalled "practically the military end of M23".
In the Ugandan capital Kampala, which is hosting stop-start peace talks, representatives from both sides voiced guarded optimism for progress on the negotiating front.
Francois Muamba, representing Kinshasa, said: "If what we have put on the table is accepted by the M23, with or without pressure, I think things will move forward."
M23 delegate Roger Lumbala was even more sanguine, saying negotiators were "putting the final touches to a deal proposed by Ugandan mediators. I think... tomorrow or the next day we'll have signatures on this agreement."
Bertrand Bisimwa, M23's political leader who fled by helicopter to Uganda, is due to take part in the Kampala talks.
In Kinshasa however, DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, while saying that "political and diplomatic solutions" were still on the table, warned that if the rebels did not voluntarily disband, he would have "no other choice but to make them do so by force".
The M23 was founded by former Tutsi rebels who were incorporated into the Congolese army under a 2009 peace deal they said was never fully implemented.
They mutinied in April 2012, turning their guns on their former comrades in North Kivu, a province rich in minerals and agricultural produce that armed groups have fought over for more than two decades.
At least 5,000 have fled to Uganda
At the height of their military strength, the M23 rebels were able to capture Goma for 10 days last November, before withdrawing as a precondition for the Kampala peace talks, which began on December 9.
Intermittent fighting has persisted ever since, with a new flareup last Friday after a two-month lull.
A joint offensive by the government and a UN intervention brigade to push back the rebels began in earnest at the weekend.
Government troops quickly took control of a military base at Rumangabo used by the rebels and recaptured another town, Kiwanja, on their way to Rutshuru and finally Bunagana.
At the Rumangabo base, one soldier held in captivity by the M23 for nearly a year with up to 200 others described how the prisoners were "badly treated".
From time to time rebels came and "took people, certainly to kill them because we have never to this day seen them again", said Major James Mwendangabo.
In the nearby market, 26-year-old Jacques Kagura said he was happy to see the rebels leave.
"We suffered with the M23... Some people are still afraid to come back because we know that the M23 likes war whereas we are more reserved."
At least 5,000 people have fled into Uganda to escape the fighting.
That figure could double, warned Lucy Beck, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
"We are predicting up to 10,000 people would have crossed by tomorrow, because the fighting seems to be going on very close to the border... People are continuing to cross even as we speak," she said Wednesday.
Other aid groups estimated that around 22,500 people had left their homes since Friday to move closer to Goma.
Alarmed by the renewed violence, the West called for restraint, with the United States warning that the conflict could submerge the whole region.
The United Nations and numerous rights groups have accused the M23 of atrocities including rape and murder.
Both Kinshasa and the United Nations allege that Uganda and Rwanda have backed the rebels, a claim both countries reject.
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