JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Congolese troops backed by a U.N. force on Wednesday drove insurgents from the M23 group from the eastern border town of Bunagana, the rebels' headquarters and last stronghold.
The action raised the possibility that the Congolese government might defeat the rebels and begin to bring some stability to the troubled area.
Bertrand Bisimwa, a civilian leader with the M23 rebels, reportedly fled across the border into Uganda, with Congolese officials calling on authorities there to hand him over.
Julien Paluku, governor of the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, and Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende told the Associated Press that Bunagana had fallen to government forces. Local residents reported that government soldiers marched into the town in force, according to the BBC.
The reported fall of Bunagana follows intense fighting in eastern Congo after the collapse of peace talks last week over M23’s demands that its leaders receive amnesty. Thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, according to U.N. agencies.
Ugandan army spokesman Paddy Akunda told local media that Bisimwa had surrendered to his nation's forces. M23 leaders claimed Bisimwa was in Uganda for peace talks, though analysts suggested the apparent defeat of M23 made peace talks seem irrelevant.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila had made it clear that M23 leaders wanted for crimes against humanity would not receive amnesty or be integrated into the national army, as had been negotiated in previous peace agreements.
M23 emerged in April 2012 and took control of a large swath of eastern Congo, including the city of Goma last November, reportedly funding its advances with gold and other minerals from the resource-rich territory. The rebellion started after leaders of an earlier insurgent group, CNDP, accused Congolese authorities of failing to implement a 2009 peace deal in which its fighters were to be integrated into the national army.
M23 departed Goma after an occupation of just 10 days, but controlled much of the territory around the city until the army advanced against the rebels in August.
One of the main M23 leaders, Bosco Ntanganda, surrendered at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda in March and has been handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity. His surrender underscored the divisions and infighting in the rebel force.
Rwanda, which U.N. experts believe helped arm, fund and lead M23, has been under severe pressure from the White House and State Department to stop backing a group whose leaders are accused of war crimes, including recruitment of child soldiers. Rwanda has always denied involvement.
Rwandan support for the rebels in recent days appears to have waned or evaporated altogether, according to analysts, just weeks after the U.S. took steps to suspend some military aid to Rwanda.
The future stability of the region depends on whether Rwanda will support remnant M23 leaders or back a similar group in future.
Another key issue is whether Congolese and U.N. forces will now move to confront and defeat the myriad remaining armed groups in the region, notably the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, which includes some leaders of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and is seen by Rwanda as a serious threat.
Another key issue is whether the government, almost nonexistent in parts of the east, manages to hold the territory it has seized and establish state authority and governance.
The M23 Twitter feed said Tuesday that its retreat was strategic and not a sign of weakness. The rebels vowed that they would emerge victorious.
"Those who think dat M23 is finishd sees near like pig, But eagles who sees far knos that dis is the begining of the most waited Battle," the group tweeted Wednesday, using Twitter shorthand.
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