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Congo's defeated M23 rebels vow to disband and disarm

November 05, 2013|By Robyn Dixon
  • M23 rebel fighters sit in the back of a pickup truck as they prepare to leave the eastern Congolese city of Goma in December.
M23 rebel fighters sit in the back of a pickup truck as they prepare to leave… (Dai Kurokawa / European…)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Congo's M23 rebels, the latest in a succession of militias responsible for horrific attacks on civilians in the east of the country, effectively surrendered Tuesday when they announced that they were laying down their arms and disbanding.

The announcement comes after the Democratic Republic of Congo's army heavily bombarded two hills overnight, Chanzu and Runyonyi, the last rebel strongholds. In recent days the rebels abandoned a swath of territory, including many towns and villages, after being overpowered by Congolese army attacks.

M23, an ethnic Tutsi militia, has been led and armed by Rwandan forces who often crossed into Congo, according to a report by experts who advise the United Nations. It is the successor to other Tutsi militias in the region with close ties to Rwanda.

But it is not the only group responsible for atrocities against civilians in eastern Congo, an area with a plethora of competing militias. Congolese army forces have also been implicated in past abuses, as have the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, an ethnic Hutu militia that includes some leaders of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa announced Tuesday that the rebels had decided to lay down their arms and pursue the resolution of their grievances through political means.

"The chief of general staff and the commanders of all major [M23] units are requested to prepare troops for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration on terms to be agreed with the government of Congo," he said in a statement signed in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Russell Feingold, U.S. special envoy to Congo and the Great Lakes region, said the issues of disarmament and reintegration were crucial to a lasting peace.

"In a region that has suffered so much, this is obviously a significant positive step" he told journalists in the South African capital, Pretoria, where regional leaders had met the previous day and urged the signing of a Congolese peace agreement.

Reuters news agency reported that M23 rebels set fire to munitions depots and military trucks before fleeing into the forest.

The whereabouts of M23's military leadership, including a dozen wanted by Congo for alleged war crimes, isn't clear, although analysts speculated they fled into Rwanda or Uganda. The Congolese government is now likely to call on its neighbors to surrender the men so that they can stand trial.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende said on Twitter in French that about 100 M23 rebels had surrendered to government forces or been captured. Government forces were pursuing other "negative forces" in the region, he said.

Eastern Congo remains awash with rebels and gunmen, but Mende said there was no place for armed militias in the region. He cited groups such as the FDLR, Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces, another Ugandan rebel group.

After accusations that Rwanda had offered M23 significant military help as recently as August, analysts said the rebels' allies in Kigali appeared to stay out of the final fight -- one reason why M23 collapsed so swiftly.

It is the first time that the Congolese army has crushed one of the major rebel groups operating in eastern Congo, after a major reorganization of the army this year by President Joseph Kabila.

M23's defeat also follows the deployment of a new kind of U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo -- a unit with authority to go on the offensive against rebel groups, rather than wait for them to attack and then try to protect civilians.

South African Rooivalk helicopters were used for the first time in the final assault on M23 positions, according to African military analyst Darren Olivier, writing in the African Defense Review on Tuesday.

"The helicopters fired multiple 70 mm rocket salvos against M23 bunkers near Chanzu in what is a mountainous region close to the Rwandan border," Olivier wrote. "Early reports from sources in the area indicate that the action was successful, with the Rooivalks’ tactical approach through the clouds taking the M23 defenders by surprise and their rocket fire being accurate enough to disperse them and destroy one of the 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns that had been previously used to fire at the Rooivalks and other helicopters."

M23's decision to demobilize offers a rare opportunity for the Congolese government and international community to take steps toward peace in one of the world's most troubled neighborhoods.

But analysts warned that unless the Congolese army and U.N. intervention brigade disperse other armed groups -- particularly the FDLR, which is seen as a threat by Rwanda -- it is likely that another militia will emerge to take M23's place.

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