President Jacob Zuma, on a two-day state visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), shakes hands with DRC President Joseph Kabila. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma, on a two-day state visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), shakes hands with DRC President Joseph Kabila. Picture: GCIS

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma called on rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Tuesday to lay down their arms.

"I must …express that South Africa remains deeply concerned by the enduring conflict in eastern DRC, perpetrated by local and externally supported armed groups on innocent Congolese civilians," he said in a speech prepared for delivery at the DRC Parliament.

"Enough is enough, the time for peace is now and to those who would challenge this for their own self interests, we stand firm in the message that your time is now up, lay down your arms, as no longer will the misery you inflict be tolerated."

In August, Mr Zuma informed the South African Parliament that 1345 soldiers had been deployed as part of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade in the eastern DRC.

The deployment followed the passing of a UN resolution in March authorising a force to intervene in cases where people’s lives and property were threatened.

Mr Zuma said on Tuesday that South Africa stood in solidarity with the DRC in overcoming the conflict.

"As you will well know, the decision to call upon the sons and daughters of the nation’s defence forces to serve in the face of imminent danger, is always a difficult one," he said. "Nevertheless, my decision to do precisely this, in support of the international community’s efforts to restore peace to eastern DRC, is one which I firmly believe in." He said South Africa believed the conflict should be resolved through negotiated, political solutions.

"We commend the government of the DRC on its efforts in the Kampala talks (between it and the M23 rebels). It is nevertheless the case that this optimal strategy cannot take place indefinitely and at all costs," he said.

"Through the presence of the intervention brigade and indeed through the parallel international forums focused on restoring peace … I am encouraged that now, perhaps more so than at any other time in history, the eventual resolution of the DRC’s eastern security problem is finally in sight."

Meanwhile the rebels said on Tuesday that the army had forced them to retreat to their mountain holdout near the eastern border with Uganda.

After 36 hours of silence, the rebels published a statement on its website to say that the withdrawal was "in no way a sign of weakness", but a tactical retreat to Bunagana, the base of its political leaders.

After four days of fierce fighting, which claimed the life of a Tanzanian peacekeeper, the head of the UN mission in the DRC (Monusco) said late on Monday that "practically all M23 positions were abandoned, except for a small triangle at the Rwandan border".

Martin Kobler told the UN Security Council by video-link that "it is practically the military end of M23". The Congolese army has the backing of forces of a UN intervention brigade of African troops with a special Security Council mandate to take the offensive against armed movements in eastern DR Congo.

However, Mr Kobler’s optimism was not shared on Tuesday by Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher for the US nongovernmental organisation Enough Project, who said that M23 is "capable of many surprises, even it is pushed back beyond the borders."

The offensive against the M23 began days after the collapse of peace talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala, where the Kinshasa government refused amnesty to about 80 rebel leaders.

A resident reached by telephone told AFP that M23 fighters were deploying on Tuesday morning on the Chanzu and Mbuzi hills, about 80km north of Goma, capital of the strife-torn, mineral-rich North Kivu province.

The M23 rebellion was born of a mutiny in April 2012 by former mainly Tutsi rebels who had been integrated into the army in 2009 under a peace pact, then accused the Kinshasa government of reneging on the deal.

Kinshasa and the UN both accuse Rwanda and Uganda of supporting the M23, allegations that are strongly denied in Kigali and Kampala.

From Rumangabo, a major military base about 65km north of Goma that was recaptured from rebels on Monday, an AFP journalist could hear nearby mortar fire at about 09.30am GMT.

In the military base built by Belgians before independence in 1960, the reporter also saw large quantities of ammunition, including mortar shells of different calibres, abandoned by the rebels.

The past few days of renewed fighting has sparked international calls for restraint in a country wracked by successive civil wars and where hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes by the rebellion in the east.

Local transport was back on the road linking Goma to the town of Rutshuru, 80km further north, which was cleared of M23 forces on Sunday. Minibuses and lorries carrying merchandise were moving in both directions.

A scorched tank was left near Kibumba, 25km north of Goma. Lt-Col Olivier Hamuli, the military spokesman in North Kivu province, said the wreck was "the only tank taken by the rebels during the capture of Goma" in November 2012.

M23 was then at its height and occupied the city of a million people for 10 days before withdrawing under regional pressure.

About 100 local people, mainly women and children loaded with their belongings, were trudging back to Kibumba on Tuesday, now that the town was again fully controlled by government forces.

"I am happy to be going home. The war is over. We are going to live under the rule of the government again," Judith Bora told AFP, carrying her baby.

"Gone the rebellion, finished the harassment. We suffered with the rebels. We want the government to let us live in peace," said Elias Nzibonera who was leading his goats.

Another resident who had been among thousands to flee into Rwanda last Friday said that he had already returned home. "The situation is calm, there is no problem," he said by telephone.

"We can’t hear any more explosions but friends in Bunagana and Mbuzi tell me that fighting is under way in their area."

Sapa-AFP