BUNAGANA, Congo (AP) — The Congolese army retook one of the last remaining strongholds of the M23 rebels Wednesday, with fighters running for the hills as the military sought to extinguish the 18-month-old insurrection, officials said.
As the army retook the town of Bunagana, leaving the M23 with a small sliver of territory, the civilian leader of the rebel movement fled Congo, crossing the border into Uganda and prompting calls for his extradition.
The recapture of Bunagana comes just days after the U.N. special representative said: "We are witnessing the military end of the M23."
In an address to the nation late Wednesday, Congolese President Joseph Kabila warned the remaining members of the M23 to turn themselves in, saying: "I reiterate my call to the members of this armed group who have just been flushed out of our territory ... to demobilize themselves voluntarily," Kabila said. "Failure to do so will leave us with no option but to force them to do by force."
An Associated Press reporter who accompanied the Congolese troops as they took Bunagana saw the soldiers fan out as they entered the town in order to do house-to-house searches. M23 fighters could be seen running away up a hill. Small skirmishes, however, continued and the government finally secured control of the town by midday, army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Hamuli said by telephone to The Associated Press.
"We are now securing the city after the rebels fled," he said. "We have found a lot of weapons that they abandoned here. Their political leaders have crossed the border and about 40 fighters are headed toward Runyonyi and we are tracking them down."
M23 political head Bertrand Bisimwa was among those who crossed into Uganda and headed toward the capital of Kampala, officials in both countries said. Congo called for him to be returned home amid reports he left the country in vehicles that stolen during M23's siege of Goma one year ago, the provincial capital of eastern Congo whose fall to the rebels marked one of the most humiliating defeats for the Congolese military, whose soldiers were seen running away from the front line.
The events of the last few days mark a stunning turnaround for the Congolese troops, who have long been plagued by indiscipline and corruption among their ranks, making them no match for groups like M23, which until recently was allegedly backed by neighboring Rwanda.
M23 launched its movement in April 2012, becoming the latest reincarnation of an ethnic Tutsi rebel group dissatisfied with the Congolese government. Neighboring Rwanda, whose president is also an ethnic Tutsi, provided weapons, recruits and training to the M23, according to a report by U.N experts. Rwanda's government denies the allegations, saying Congo's government has failed to police its territory.
The group has been substantially weakened in the past year by internal divisions and waning Rwandan support, according to the U.N. Defections from the M23 are up this month, totaling 80 in October. Thirty-three surrendered alone on Tuesday, according to chief U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.
The Congolese military has capitalized on these rebel setbacks by pushing ahead with new offensives beginning in August that have been supported by a specially created United Nations Intervention Brigade.
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. The unrest, though, also has prompted a mass exodus of civilians.
This is only the latest unrest to prompt displacement in eastern Congo, which has now been mired in conflict for nearly two decades. Ethnic Hutu militias blamed for taking part in Rwanda's 1994 genocide fled across the border to eastern Congo, prompting Rwanda to invade twice in an attempt to crush them.
The fighting has exposed civilians to unspeakable atrocities as groups have carried out massacres and burned down villages in recent years. Rebels including the M23 are accused of carrying out mass rapes and conscripting children as armed fighters.
Associated Press writers Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda; Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; and Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this report.