The defeated M23 rebel group, blamed for killing scores of civilians in eastern Congo over the last year and a half, has announced it is ending its rebellion, raising hopes for peace in a region where millions have died in nearly two decades of violence.
The group announced it would disarm and pursue political talks just hours after government forces drove its fighters out of their last two hilltop bases of Tshanzu and Runyoni before dawn.
A two-week UN-backed offensive had cornered the rebels in the lush hills along the border with Uganda and Rwanda.
DR Congo and the M23: The root of a complex conflict
African leaders had urged the group to renounce their rebellion to allow the signing of a peace agreement with the government of Democractic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila.
“The chief of general 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 in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from one of the last rebel strongholds, Jomba, said that the remaining M23 rebel fighters had fled.
“Some government troops say the driver of General Makenga (military commander of M23) surrendered. They say he says Makenga has fled into neighbouring Rwanda. People here are waiting to find out if that’s true and see what the Rwandan government will do with him.”
Webb said that the Congolese government was now consolidating its new ground and bringing in more troops. He said that, with the border town of Bunagana retaken by the DRC army, it would be now hard for M23 to get arms and other resources.
“It is difficult for M23 to continue beyond the borders.”
Congolese government spokesman, Laurent Mende, said rebels were surrendering in large numbers and that the Kinshasa government was ready to pursue peace talks.
“There is no more place in our country for any irregular group,” Mende said on Tuesday, adding that the newly defeated M23 rebels “were top of the list. They have been replaced by the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). We are going to get on with disarming them.”
“In a region that has suffered so much, this is obviously a significant positive step in the right direction,” Russell Feingold, US special envoy to the Congo and the Great Lakes region, said at a briefing in Pretoria.
While the dramatic developments marked a significant success in the Congolese government’s fight against armed groups in the embattled east, experts warned that the rebel retreat would not result in an immediate peace in a region ravaged by fighting for nearly two decades.