THE M23 rebel group has declared an end to its 20-month insurgency in the Democratic Republic of Congo, pledging to pursue a political solution.
Its announcement came as M23 troops were forced from the last two hilltops they controlled, with its remaining fighters fleeing into the central African forest.
Government troops drove the rebels out of Tshanzu and Runyoni before dawn yesterday, following a two-week United Nations-backed offensive that cornered the insurgents in heavily wooded hills along the border with Uganda and Rwanda.
“The chief of staff and the commanders of all major units are requested to prepare troops for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration on terms to be agreed with the government of Congo,” M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa said.
The United States welcomed the declaration as a “significant positive step” for eastern Congo, a region beset for more than 15 years by conflict fuelled by competition for gold, copper and cobalt as well as cross-border ethnic tensions.
A meeting of regional leaders in South Africa said earlier yesterday that president Joseph Kabila’s government would sign a peace deal within days if rebels laid down their arms.
In distant capital Kinshasa, thousands of women dressed in white marched down the central boulevard to parliament in support of Mr Kabila and the army.
It marked a dramatic turnaround for the 42-year-old leader.
Only a year ago, the M23 had swept aside UN peacekeepers and the army to capture Goma, the largest town in eastern Congo. That defeat led to the deployment of a tough new UN Intervention Brigade and to increased diplomatic pressure on Rwanda and Uganda not to meddle in the conflict, changing the tide of events. M23 has been riven by defections and in-fighting.
Martin Kobler, head of the 19,850-member UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, said attention would turn to scores of smaller armed groups operating in the lawless east, including the Rwandan Hutu FDLR.
“We have teeth and we are using those teeth,” Mr Kobler said in Pretoria, referring to the 3,000-strong Intervention Brigade. The M23 is the latest manifestation of simmering anger with Kinshasa among ethnic Tutsis in eastern Congo and the real test will be whether government and rebels can reach a lasting political deal. M23 took up arms last year when a previous 2009 peace accord with the Tutsi-led CNDP rebels unravelled.
Russell Feingold, US special envoy to the Great Lakes region, said the issues of an amnesty and reintegration of rebels into the army were vital to ensuring a durable deal.
“In a region that has suffered so much, this is obviously a significant positive step in the right direction,” he said. He voiced confidence that Rwanda, accused by UN experts of backing the M23, now supported ending the insurgency.
Kigali has denied backing the rebels. Those suspected of serious rights violations should be pursued and should not be covered by any amnesty, he added.
Analysts said M23’s military leader Sultani Makenga was among those unlikely to benefit from any amnesty deal. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Congolese spokesman Laurent Mende said many M23 fighters had surrendered after Tshanzu and Runyoni were seized. “Militarily, this is finished,” Mr Mende said.
The rebels deserted their positions, setting fire to munitions dumps and lorries before fleeing, one army commander said.
Paddy Ankunda, a Ugandan army spokesman, said more than 80 M23 fighters had fled into Uganda where they were being held until a diplomatic decision was made on their fate.