DEFENCE FORCE: Congolese armed forces (FARDC) soldiers move to new positions as they battle M23 rebels  in Kibati, outside Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in August. Picture: REUTERS
DEFENCE FORCE: Congolese armed forces (FARDC) soldiers move to new positions as they battle M23 rebels in Kibati, outside Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in August. Picture: REUTERS

NEW YORK — Government forces backed by United Nations (UN) troops have defeated the M23 rebel movement that threatened towns in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, diplomats at the United Nations said.

Diplomats said on Tuesday that UN envoy Martin Kobler had told the UN Security Council: "Practically all M23 positions were abandoned yesterday (Monday), except for a small triangle at the Rwandan border."

The French ambassador to the UN, who was at Mr Kobler’s closed-door briefing, confirmed his report.

"We can say today that the M23 is finished, militarily," Gerard Araud said on Tuesday. "Most of the positions held by the M23 have been retaken by Democratic Republic of Congo forces."

Mr Araud and other diplomats expressed hope that defeat on the battlefield would convince the rebels to return to peace talks.

Mr Kobler, the civilian special representative in charge of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco), was speaking after Congolese government forces backed by UN troops carried out an offensive. Troops from Monusco have a mandate to conduct operations against rebels in the region of Goma, capital of the restive province of North Kivu.

A Tanzanian UN soldier was killed in the fighting but the rebels were rolled back and local civilians were overjoyed, Mr Kobler said, according to officials present at the closed-door meeting.

He said M23 had abandoned a key position on Mount Hehu near the Rwandan border, reportedly adding: "It is practically the military end of the M23."

The mainly Tutsi M23 movement emerged in April last year after a mutiny by former rebels who had been taken into the Democratic Republic of the Congo army under a 2009 deal.

Rebels accused Kinshasa of failing to adhere to the terms of that deal. On-off negotiations in the Ugandan capital Kampala failed after the government refused to give an amnesty to about 80 rebel leaders.

The M23’s numbers were limited but the movement, which allegedly received support from neighbouring Rwanda, was seen as a threat to stability in a region with a long history of conflict.

Rwanda’s UN ambassador, Eugene Richard Gasana, alleged 21 shells had fallen on the Rwandan side of the border during the fighting, and two civilians killed and 10 wounded.

He said 15 wounded M23 fighters had crossed into Rwanda and been handed over to the Red Cross, and 1,000 refugees had fled the fighting.

"Rwanda will be forced to take action if Rwandan lives continue to be jeopardised," he warned, according to diplomats who were at the briefing.

"Rwanda will not tolerate for much longer violations of its territorial integrity," he said, according to the officials, alleging that Rwandan Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels were operating alongside Congolese forces.

Mr Kobler, according to diplomats, confirmed some shells had fallen on Rwandan soil and said the UN would take steps against the FDLR once the M23 threat was dealt with.

M23 deputy spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka said by telephone that the rebels withdrew overnight from Rumangabo, a former Congolese army base they seized last year.

"This is not the first time we have withdrawn. It’s not the end of the line for us," he said, denying reports that some M23 leaders had fled to Rwanda.

In Rutshuru, jubilant crowds welcomed Congolese soldiers and UN peacekeepers who began patrolling the town on Monday.

A report on Monday by Enough Project, a US human rights campaign group, said any attempt at peace in Congo must tackle not just the Tutsi-led M23 but also the FDLR.

Rwanda has accused the UN of ignoring the threat from the FDLR, led by some of those responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide in which Hutus killed about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

In another area of eastern Congo, about 10,000 Congolese refugees have fled into Uganda to escape fighting between local militias and a new rebel faction called M18, Red Cross and military officials said.

Sapa-AFP and Reuters