Congolese rebels surrender, flee after defeat

The Congolese rebels defeat could signal the way forward for a peace accord in the country.

The Congolese rebels defeat could signal the way forward for a peace accord in the country. Picture: AFP.

KINSHASA - Congolese rebels loyal to warlord Bosco Ntaganda have fled into neighbouring Rwanda or surrendered to United Nations peacekeepers after being routed by a rival faction, rebel and U.N. sources said on Saturday.

Ntaganda's apparent defeat comes after weeks of infighting within the M23 insurgency and could open the way for rival rebel leader Sultani Makenga to sign a peace deal with Kinshasa, bringing an end to a year-long rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rebel spokesman Vianney Kazarama said Makenga's fighters seized control of the town of Kibumba, 30 km (19 miles) north of Goma, capital of mineral-rich North Kivu province, early on Saturday.

Ntaganda and an estimated 200 fighters fled into the forest while others crossed the border into Rwanda, Kazarama said. At least seven fighters were killed.

"We're sweeping the area and placing our soldiers at strategic points," Kazarama said. "It is finished."

Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of killing civilians during a previous rebellion. His links to M23 have been a stumbling block to peace talks with Kinshasa - the Congolese government has repeatedly said it wants him brought to justice.

"We're following the situation very closely. The only thing we want is for Ntaganda to be arrested," government spokesman Lambert Mende said.

Ntaganda's whereabouts could not be confirmed independently and members of his faction were not reachable by telephone on Saturday.

Rwanda said on Saturday more than 200 rebel fighters had fled across its border overnight, including M23's former political head Jean-Marie Runiga, a Ntaganda loyalist who was ousted from the rebel hierarchy last month.

"It's over for the Bosco (Ntaganda) and Runiga faction," one U.N. source said.

Dozens of other M23 fighters, including senior officers, had handed themselves over to U.N. peacekeepers in recent days, according to the source, who asked not to be named.

The United Nations has accused Rwanda of backing armed uprisings in its vast and unstable neighbour to tackle extremist Rwandan rebels who operate there and to protect its economic interests.

In 2009, Kigali played a key role in ending the last major insurgency when it arrested its former ally and rebel leader Laurent Nkunda as part of a deal with Kinshasa.

That agreement saw Ntaganda integrated into the Congolese army as a general. It was Kinshasa's alleged failure to honour the terms of the deal that the rebels say sparked the M23 uprising.

M23 is one of many rebel groups operating in eastern Congo, which has been torn apart by nearly two decades of fighting over land, ethnicity and resources which has left millions dead.