The Democratic Republic of Congo's M23 rebels have ended an18-month insurgency in one of Africa's deadliest conflict zones. As news spread, it became clear that this was what people had long been hoping for.
The M23 group surrendered Tuesday, saying it would "end its rebellion" and instead pursue their goals "through purely political means." The announcement came just hours after more than 200 rebels were coaxed from their hilltop positions within the M23 strongholds of Tshanzu and Runyoni early Tuesday morning.
Group leaders called on fighters to lay down their arms following a fortnight of fighting that cornered the militia in heavily wooded hills along the border with Rwanda and Uganda.
"The chief of staff and the commanders of all major units have requested to prepare troops for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration on terms to be agreed with the government of Congo," M23 leader Bertrand Bismwa said in a statement.
'Victory for the DRC'
In response to the announcement, government spokesperson Lambert Mende commented that, "It is a total victory for the DRC." The rebels, he added, who had been flushed from the hills, fled to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.
More than 80 M23 rebels crossed the border into Uganda, Ugandan army spokeperson Paddy Ankunda said, adding the men were being held until a diplomatic decision was made on their fate.
The army began a major offensive against the rebels on October 25, gradually claiming the rebel-held strongholds until the intransigent M23 militia was forced into the mountains about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the regional capital, Goma.
By Sunday (03.11.2013), the insurgents had called for a ceasefire, but the army pursued their assault along with United Nations troops. The UN special force had up until then been assisting the military with aerial reconnaissance, intelligence and planning, but joined fighting after being given the go-ahead to attack the mountain region.
Since the ceasefire was called, the UNHCR has received over 5,000 Congolese to their transit center, 20 kilometers inside Uganda. That, Lucy Beck, the UNHCRs external relations officer told DW "was the biggest amount of refugees we've ever transported in one day from the border." Since fighting began, she added, "The organization had assisted more than 75,000 people who arrived in Uganda from the DRC."
More than 75,000 people have arrived in Uganda in a bid to flee the conflict, according to the UNHCR
An issue of amnesty
At the SADC meeting of regional leaders being held in South Africa on Tuesday, DRC President Joseph Kabila said he would sign a peace deal within the coming days if the M23 rebel group laid down their arms.
Russell Feingold, US special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, said the deal needed to raise the issue of amnesty and reintegration of rebels into the army to ensure its durability.
"In a region that has suffered so much, this is obviously a significant positive step in the right direction," he said. Those suspected of serious human rights violations, he added, should be sought out and not aided through amnesty.
Support for a peace accord
In a show of support, women in the capital, Kinshasa, dressed in white and chanted songs praising the country's leader and the army. One woman told DW, "We've suffered so long from this war. Now we are very happy." Another added, "There will be change now. The president promised that when the war was over. Now we have to love each other."
In response to the announcement, the United States said it was a "significant positive step" for eastern Congo, a region that has endured more than 15 years of conflict as competition for gold, copper and cobalt intensified along with cross-border ethnic tensions.
As the conflict with the M23 draws to a close, Martin Kobler, head of the 19,850 UN backed peacekeeping mission in the DRC, said their efforts would now turn to the countless number of armed groups operating in the east, including the Rwandan Hutu FDLR that fled across the border after the 1994 genocide.
"We have teeth, and we are using those teeth," Kobeler said from Pretoria, making reference to the 3,000-troop intervention brigade currently stationed in the DRC.
While many peace deals have been signed in the past, there is hope this recent accord will stand firm and send a message to other rebel groups across the DRC and the greater African continent.
"The military victories over the M23 will send a very strong message to the many other armed groups operating in the east," said Stephanie Wolters of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Pretoria.
"It may prompt them to consider the advantages of a negotiated solution over a drawn-out military campaign."
*Additional reporting by Gaius Kowene in Goma