BUNAGANA, Congo (AP) — The Congolese army retook one of the last remaining strongholds of the M23 rebels Wednesday, with fighters heading for the hills as the military sought to extinguish the 18-month insurrection, officials said.
As the army retook the town of Bunagana, leaving the M23 with a small sliver of territory, the civilian head of their movement crossed the border into Uganda prompting calls for his immediate extradition.
The recapturing of Bunagana comes just days after the United Nations special representative said "we are witnessing the military end of the M23."
Small skirmishes took place through the town and M23 fighters could be seen running away up a hill behind Bunagana, according to an Associated Press reporter traveling with the army.
Carrying guns and cooking pots as they entered Bunagana, the soldiers spread out in the town and did house-to-house searches.
Hundreds of civilians who had fled across the border to Uganda began crossing back over after the gunfire stopped.
The government finally regained control of town by midday, said army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Hamuli, speaking 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. Bisimwa, whose Twitter photo is of peace icon Mahatma Gandhi, frequently has spoken on behalf of the group.
Ugandan authorities denied that he had been arrested, though Congo called for him to be returned home amid reports he left the country in vehicles that were stolen during M23's siege of Goma last November.
"We demand that Ugandan authorities ... return all Congolese property and extradite Mr. Bisimwa as soon as possible," said Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu province.
There was no immediate comment from the M23, which in recent days has accused the Congolese military and its U.N. allies of sabotaging the peace process with their offensive.
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, has 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.
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 the U.N. group of experts.
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 the most powerful U.N. force yet. After years of only protecting civilians, the U.N. has a new mandate to actively aid the Congolese army in pursuing the rebels.
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.
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.
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.
Eastern Congo — home to volcanoes, lush green forested hills and some of the world's last remaining mountain gorillas — is now awash in armed militias vying for control of lucrative minerals including gold.
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.