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05 Nov 2013 19:52
The army launched a major offensive on October 25, steadily claiming the main rebel-held towns until diehard M23 fighters were forced to hole up on three hills. (AFP)
Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)'s powder-keg east surrendered Tuesday after a crushing UN-backed offensive ended their 18-month insurgency in a region that has seen some of Africa's deadliest conflicts.
Kinshasa, emboldened by its biggest military victory in half a century, said its forces would keep up the momentum to go after Rwandan Hutu militia also active in the region.
A statement by the M23 that it would "end its rebellion" and instead pursue its goals "through purely political means" came after 200 or so holdout rebels were rousted from their hilltop positions overnight.
"It's a total victory for the DRC," said government spokesperson Lambert Mende, adding that the routed rebels had fled to neighbouring Rwanda.
A local official said the M23's top commander Sultani Makenga was among them.
The army launched a major offensive on October 25, 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 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' crushing defeat after 10 days of fighting appeared to signal that Kigali had finally yielded to intense diplomatic pressure and chosen to forsake its one-time proxy.
On Tuesday, Mende said the M23 had been "top of the list" of multiple armed groups targeted for eradication in the east, and that the Rwandan Hutus were next.
"There is no more place in our country for any irregular group," Mende said.
Now the army will "get on with disarming" the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Kivu-based Rwandan group that includes the remnants of Hutu militia who carried out the 1994 genocide, he said.
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.
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 Kivu region, rich in sought-after minerals such as the coltan used in mobile phones, is key to Rwanda's fast-growing economy.
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.
The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that the recent fighting had forced 10 000 civilians to flee across the border to 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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