DR Congo’s army has liberated three major towns from the M23 rebels in a span of just three days. It is a dramatic fall for the M23 rebels, who have terrorized hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern Congo for more than a year.
Kibumba, Kiwanja and Rutshuru, three rebel strongholds that had been occupied for more than a year, had all returned under the control of the Congolese Armed Forces, also known as FARDC, by Sunday evening following what one rebel spokesman called a “generalized attack” that began early Friday morning.
Using heavy and light weapons, the FARDC have attacked the rebel strongholds from the south and the north. Even with reinforcements said to have come from Rwanda, the rebels have been routed town after town.
Announcing the fall of Kiwanja on Sunday, the Congolese army spokesman in North Kivu province, Col. Olivier Hamuli, said that the rebels did not oppose much of a resistance in the town.
In Kiwanja, which is located 70 km north of Goma, the population welcomed Congolese army soldiers as heroes. UN-backed Radio Okapi reported that the population was waiting for the FARDC mopping-up operations to end before starting to celebrate the defeat of rebels.
“Since we heard that the FARDC are winning on the ground, we have been waiting for them with open arms. As soon as they [FARDC] arrived at Kitoboko, everyone was in the streets to welcome them. And they really felt that the population was waiting for them with open arms,” a resident of Kiwanja told Radio Okapi after the town was liberated.
MONUSCO, the UN mission in DR Congo, reported that one of its peacekeepers from Tanzania was killed in Kiwanja while protecting civilians.
UN peacekeepers, including those from the new UN intervention brigade, did not actively engage the rebels during the latest fighting, although they are standing ready to act if civilians come under rebel attacks.
On Sunday, several rebels deserted the M23 and fled to MONUSCO’s base in Kiwanja to be disarmed.
Visiting Kiwanja after the town was liberated, the UN Secretary-General Special Representative for DR Congo, Martin Kobler, congratulated the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers.
“It is my first impression that people are really happy to be liberated and that the fighting has now ended. This territory has been liberated from the M23,” Radio Okapi quoted Mr. Kobler as saying.
“We have an obligation to protect civilians here. That’s why we are here. It is our task, our mandate. But we must now continue with the political process, especially back in Kampala,” Mr. Kobler said.
He was referring to the peace talks between the Congolese government and the M23 rebels in Kampala, Uganda, which were suspended last week after the rebels insisted on being granted a total amnesty and be integrated into the national army.
The Congolese government has insisted it will not grant amnesty to M23 rebels and commanders who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. It has said it is ready to treat each application to reintegrate the army on a case-by-case basis.
The Congolese government says it cannot give a complete amnesty to the same rebels who mutinied from the army last year claiming the government did not respect an earlier peace deal signed in 2009 that had granted them amnesty and integrated them, as former rebels, into the army.
The Congolese government is also facing strong opposition to the Kampala talks from the Congolese population. Many Congolese see any deal with the M23 rebels as nothing less than treason.
If there is one hallmark to the insecurity that has plagued eastern Congo for more than a decade, it is the many peace deals which have been signed with rebels leading to their integration into the national army.
What many Congolese want from their government and army is to win the war. It is not a new “peace” deal likely to lead to Congolese soldiers being forced to once again integrate rebels who were still trying to kill them days earlier.
It is even harder today to see how the Congolese government could justify signing a deal with the rebels now that it has proven that, with better organization and political will, it can defeat the M23 rebels.
The war may be far from being over, but the rebels’ aura of invincibility has collapsed.
With the rebels in disarray, it is safe to say that the eyes of the Congolese soldiers are not turned towards Kampala at the moment. The FARDC High Command has announced that it intends to “liberate all areas still under the control of the rebels.”