About 1,000 former fighters from Democratic Republic of Congo’s rebel group M23 have escaped from a camp in Uganda where they were being held as soldiers tried to repatriate them, the Ugandan army has said.
The rebels escaped from the camp in Bihanga, about 300km southwest of the Ugandan capital Kampala, as they feared for their safety if they were sent back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Uganda army spokesman said.
Several of the ex-rebels were wounded by gunshots after those in the camp refused to board army trucks sent in before dawn to take them to the airport, according to M23 chief Bertrand Bisimwa.
A Ugandan officer speaking to AFP news agency on condition of anonymity admitted the operation had encountered “resistance” and confirmed that several in the camp were wounded by bullets.
The Ugandan army said the camp had been holding 1,373 former M23 fighters.
An AFP reporter at Entebbe airport saw 120 of them board a plane bound for the DRC.
An Ugandan army spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Paddy Ankunda, said via Twitter that troops were now searching for the 1,000 “who escaped the repatriation”.
He insisted that “no member of M23 was forced to be repatriated towards the DRC”.
But in Kampala, where he lives, Bisimwa disputed that. He said the attempt to return the M23 former fighters to the DRC was “a violation of international law” and of a peace deal reached a year ago between the DRC and the group.
The rebels’ 18-month war, during which they briefly seized the key DRC town of Goma, capital of mineral-rich North Kivu province, was brought to an end in 2013 by government troops and UN peacekeepers.
The fighters fled into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.
They signed papers in May vowing not to fight again in return for a possible amnesty.
M23 leaders last month warned they would fight again should agreements fail.
The defeated rebels told AFP of mounting frustrations among the group’s confined-to-camp fighters.
While the M23 was defeated, multiple armed groups still operate in a region that has been in conflict for the best part of two decades. Much of the rebel activity consists of abuses against civilians and illegal exploitation of natural resources such as metals, ivory or timber.