Congolese military's seizure of rebel stronghold seen as turning point
Significant turning point in the insurrection raises hopes of a peace deal with the M23 fighters said to be finished as a military force
Congo's army was hunting rebels deep into forests and mountains along the border with Rwanda and Uganda, the last insurgent hideouts after they were driven from towns they held during a 20-month rebellion.
Ugandan mediators said talks had restarted on Wednesday in Kampala between the government and M23 rebels, but Kinshasa's UN-backed army appears on the verge of defeating the most serious uprising to plague the mineral-rich east since the end of the last major war a decade ago.
"We are going to pursue M23 and push them into a corner, wherever they hide, because they are criminals," Congo army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli said. "We must not leave them time [to reorganise] because they have martyred the Congolese people for too long. Now is the time to bring peace."
M23 officials said they withdrew from towns under diplomatic pressure. Bertrand Bissimwa, M23's political leader, told French radio RFI that the military losses would not alter their demands in talks.
Clashes were reported in the hills above Bunagana, the last rebel-controlled town to fall this week, and around Runyoni, a hill that was the birthplace of the rebellion last year.
The rebel group's political leader, Bertrand Bisimwa, crossed from eastern Congo into Uganda on Wednesday, but the Ugandan army said he did not surrender. "He was coming to make contribution to peace talks," said Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the Ugandan military.
The Ugandan capital, Kampala, has been the scene of peace talks between the Congolese government and the M23. But those talks broke off last week and fighting resumed.
"The talks are still going on," Ankunda said. "They are in a meeting."
Roger Lumbala, a member of the M23 negotiating team in Kampala, said that the retreat was a result of diplomatic, rather than military, pressure and that the rebels were ready to sign a peace agreement with the government.
"At this stage, it's really starting to look as if it's a surrender treaty and not a political treaty like it was a few months ago," said a senior UN official.
"It essentially will capture the reality on the ground, which is that as a military force the M23 is finished."
The military advance represented a major turnaround from a year ago, when rebels from the M23 group seized the provincial capital of Goma. That setback galvanised support for a more robust presence in eastern Congo for the military and for the United Nations, which created a muscular intervention brigade.
This time, the Congolese army appeared better armed and better equipped. Soldiers were being paid more regularly, and morale and discipline seemed to improve, analysts said. In August, government forces supported by the intervention brigade retook the high ground on the outskirts of Bunagana in heavy fighting. Both sides returned to the negotiating table, but not for long.
The talks fell apart last week and fighting resumed, , with the Congolese military quickly taking the upper hand. The army notched successes, retaking Kibumba, Kiwanja, Rutshuru, Rumangabo and, finally on Wednesday, Bunagana.
Reuters, The New York Times