Congolese army soldiers march into Kibumba town after recapturing it from M23 rebels over the weekend, around 25km from the provincial capital Goma, in eastern Congo Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. The Congolese army, who just one year ago abandoned their posts and fled in the face of an advancing rebel army, succeeded on Monday in taking back a fifth rebel-held town, the city of Rumangabo, in what appears to be a turning point in the conflict. (AP Photo / Joseph Kay)
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congolese officials said the army has seized one of the M23 rebels’ last remaining strongholds on Wednesday as more than 10,000 refugees poured into neighboring Uganda.
The fall of Bunagana came as the political chief of M23, Bertrand Bisimwa, also crossed into Uganda and was believed to be heading toward the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende called on Ugandan authorities to turn over Bisimwa.
But Bisimwa does not face arrest in Uganda, said Uganda Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda. Uganda has been hosting peace talks between the Congolese government and M23 since December. Those talks stalled earlier this month, right before clashes resumed between United Nations-backed Congolese forces and the rebels.
The Congolese military has been battling the M23 rebels, who are allegedly backed by Rwanda, for 18 months. The rebels’ high-water mark perhaps came in November when they briefly held the city of Goma, which lies along the Rwandan border.
M23’s setbacks on the battlefield don’t necessarily spell the end of the group, nor of violence in mineral-rich eastern Congo where myriad insurgent groups have operated, fighting for the spoils from the mining of copper, cobalt, tungsten and other minerals and metals which lie under the ground.
Julien Paluku, the governor of Congo’s North Kivu province, said that Bunagana is back in the hands of the military after the rebels retreated from the town on the Ugandan border. Mende also confirmed the fall of Bunagana, hours after humanitarian workers in Uganda had reported hearing heavy gunfire. The Associated Press could not immediately independently verify the claim.
Lucy Beck, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Uganda, said the Congolese crossing the border are now “too many to count.” The number of Congolese seeking refuge in Uganda rose from 5,000 to more than 10,000 within hours Wednesday, she said.
The M23 movement emerged in April 2012, the latest incarnation of an ethnic Tutsi rebel group dissatisfied with the Congolese government. Neighboring Rwanda, whose president is also an ethnic Tutsi, is widely believed to have provided weapons, recruits and training to M23. Rwanda’s government denies the allegations, saying Congo’s government has failed to police its vast territory.
M23 briefly overtook Goma — a city of 1 million people — last November but has been substantially weakened in the past year by internal divisions and waning Rwandan support, according to a United Nations group of experts.
The Congolese military has capitalized on these rebel setbacks by pushing ahead with new offensives beginning in August that have been supported by the most powerful U.N. force yet. After years of only protecting civilians, the U.N. is now actively aiding Congolese soldiers in pursuing their enemy.
In the last week, Congo has scored a series of successes and taken back half a dozen towns from rebel control to the cheers of local residents waving palm leaves and running alongside their vehicles.
Mende insisted Uganda not provide a haven for the M23’s political chief.
“Bisimwa crossed the border today with official vehicles that were stolen in November in Goma,” Mende said. “We are counting on the cooperation of our neighbors.”