Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have called for a ceasefire days after government forces battling them in the country’s east said they had driven them out of their last stronghold.
Bertrand Bisimwa, leader of M23, said in a statement on Sunday that “all the forces of the Congolese revolutionary army” had been ordered to end hostilities with government troops.
Bisimwa said his aim was to “allow the continuation of the political process” with the DRC in a bid to end the insurgency plaguing eastern region since April 2012.
M23, so-called after a peace agreement they signed with the government on March 22, 2009, started an armed rebellion in April after staging a mutiny they said was prompted by poor pay and living conditions.
Bisimwa urged rebel chiefs to “ensure the strict observance of this order by elements under their command”.
His order was issued in the midst of fierce fighting in the mountainous region bordering Uganda and Rwanda, two countries accused by theUN of backing the rebels, although they deny these charges.
The latest wave of fighting intensified after peace talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala between M23 and the government foundered on the rebels’ demand to have a blanket amnesty for all fighters.
Congolese troops, aided by UN peacekeepers with a Security Council mandate to intervene militarily, have been pounding hilltop positions where some 200 fighters have been sheltering after being forced from their last stronghold this week.
Government forces launched a fresh offensive on Sunday against the rebels who fled to the hills after their base was seized on Wednesday in the town of Bunagana, about 80km north of Goma, the capital of mineral-rich North Kivu province and previously a target for M23 to capture.
The fighting raged for about eight hours and had appeared to intensify after the ceasefire order, reported the AFP news agency, citing its correspondents close to the battle zone.
“We are pounding Mbuzi,” one of three mountains in eastern DR Congo where the rebels are hiding, General Lucien Bahuma told AFP by telephone earlier Sunday.
“After the artillery we will send in the troops.”
A DRC captain, speaking anonymously, said the army was “claiming back the hills. There is shooting in the mountains of Ntamugenga, Mbuzi and Runyonyi. The rebels are fleeing”.
The lush green hilly region has been rocked by heavy fighting for the past 10 days as Congolese troops battle to stamp out the insurgency once and for all.
The clashes have forced thousands from their fields and homes, and aid agencies estimate about 10,000 refugees have streamed into Uganda.