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DRC assault quashes M23 rebellion

06 November 2013, 12:14

Bunagana - Rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo said Tuesday they were laying down arms after a crushing UN-backed offensive handed Kinshasa its biggest military victory in half a century.

The M23 movement said in a statement that it had "decided from this day to end its rebellion" and instead to pursue its goals "through purely political means."

The move ended an 18-month insurgency that has displaced tens of thousands of civilians and threatened to trigger another major war in a region that has seen some of Africa's deadliest conflicts.

Kinshasa on Tuesday claimed that its troops had recaptured the hills of Runyoni and Chanzu, where a mere 200 or so holdout rebels made their last stand overnight.

"The last remnants of the M23 have just abandoned their positions," said Lambert Mende, communications minister and government spokesperson.

"It's a total victory for the DRC," he said, adding that the routed rebels fled to neighbouring Rwanda. A local official said the M23's top commander Sultani Makenga was among them.

"We have finished the job," an army spokesperson said.

The army launched a major offensive on 25 October, steadily claiming the main rebel-held towns until diehard M23 fighters were forced to hole up on three hills about 80km north of the regional capital Goma and near the Rwandan border.

The insurgents - who at their strongest occupied Goma for 10 days a year ago - called for a truce on Sunday, but the army pressed on with its assault.

The UN special force in the region -- which had so far been assisting with aerial reconnaissance, intelligence and planning - joined direct combat late on Monday after getting the green light to bombard the hilltops.

While Kinshasa celebrated a rare victory in a densely forested region where it has chronically failed to deliver a knock-out punch to rebel groups, Rwanda remained mum.

UN experts and Kinshasa have repeatedly described the M23 as a Rwandan puppet, accusing Kigali of arming the group and even of sending some of its own troops to the battlefield.

The rebels' 10-day debacle appeared to signal that Kigali had finally yielded to intense diplomatic pressure and chosen to forsake its one-time proxy.

Kivu region is key to the Rwandan economy

The demise of the M23, made up of ethnic Tutsis, leaves minority Tutsi-led Kigali without a military ally across the border for the first time in years.

The mineral-rich Kivu region is key to Rwanda's fast-growing economy.

Kinshasa vowed on Tuesday that its forces would keep their momentum to go after the FDLR, a Kivu-based Rwandan group that includes the remnants of Hutu militia who carried out the 1994 genocide.

Kigali, which refrained from responding to alleged shelling by Congolese forces during the latest fighting, has demanded that Kinshasa and the United Nations hunt down the FDLR.

With the rebels on the ropes, M23 political leader Bertrand Bisimwa had called on Sunday for a ceasefire to allow a resumption of peace talks.

International envoys ostensibly voiced concern when fresh fighting followed, but continued Congolese pressure ensured that the M23 could not regroup and find a second wind.

"It is important that the M23... declare the end of the rebellion. The fighting must stop," the head of the UN mission in DR Congo, Martin Kobler, said in a statement on Monday.

Meeting in South Africa late on Monday, African leaders echoed the sentiment, saying that a peace deal for DR Congo could be signed if the rebels called it quits.

Analysts say better preparation by the Congolese troops and the unprecedented offensive mandate granted to the special UN brigade tipped the military balance.

The heavily armed 3 000-strong UN intervention brigade joined 17 000 peacekeepers already deployed with a mission to stamp out rebel groups accused of human rights abuses including rape, murder and recruiting child soldiers.

The M23 was launched in April 2012 by ex-rebels who had been integrated into the regular army after an earlier peace deal but mutinied again, claiming that Kinshasa was failing to keep its side of the bargain.

It was initially led by Rwanda-born Bosco Ntaganda, an ex-rebel and general nicknamed The Terminator who surrendered to the International Criminal Court this year over charges of crimes against humanity.

The latest fighting to break out in the border region, rich in sought-after minerals such as the coltan used in mobile phones, has sent thousands of people fleeing to neighbouring Uganda.

The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday that the recent fighting had forced 10 000 civilians to flee across the border with Uganda, Rwanda's neighbour to the north.

The area of North and South Kivu has a bloody history. It saw the birth of the 1996 Rwandan-backed rebellion that toppled Mobutu Sese Seko and installed Laurent-Desire Kabila, the father of the current president.

The region was also the detonator of the 1998-2003 conflict known as the Great African War, which involved nine countries and is described as the continent's deadliest war of the modern era.

The disbanding of the M23 marks the clearest and most significant military victory for the Congolese government since the 1963 crushing of a separatist rebellion in the southern province of Katanga.



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