RUMANGABO, Congo (AP) — The Congolese army, who just one year ago abandoned their posts and fled in the face of an advancing rebel army, succeeded on Monday in taking back the fifth, rebel-held town, in what appears to be a turning point in the conflict.
The civilian population, which reportedly suffered grave abuses under the rebels, poured into the streets to welcome the soldiers, running alongside their tanks. Women threw flowers. Men picked palm leaves off of the nearby trees and waved them. The U.N. envoy to Congo told the Security Council it was the military end of the M23 rebel group.
"I confirm that we have just taken the city of Rumangabo," said Congolese military spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Hamuli. "(We) entered the city at 11 a.m. and were met by the applause of the population."
Over the weekend, Congolese soldiers took back Kiwanja, Rutshuru, Buhumba and Kibumba. Of the five, Rumangabo is the most important militarily, because it is home to one of the largest military camps in Congo's troubled east.
The soldiers faced no resistance as they headed into Rumangabo town, according to a reporter for The Associated Press accompanying the troops. From there they advanced toward the camp, which dates back to the time of ex-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and was taken over about a year ago by the M23 rebels, who used it to train their recruits.
The Congolese army reached the camp at around noon, secured the stockpile of weapons left there and posted guards. It was there that the Congolese troops were approached by Jacques Leon Liripa, a Congolese soldier who had been captured by the rebels in 2012, and spent more than a year as a prisoner of war. He said the M23 rebels deserted the area on Sunday afternoon, and he was able to break out of jail. He spent the night in the forest, emerging only when he saw his former colleagues.
Martin Kobler, the U.N. special representative for Congo, briefed the U.N. Security Council and told them "We are witnessing the military end of the M23," according to French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud.
"We hope that the rebel movement has been chastised, and will go back to the negotiating table," Araud said.
The Congolese government will quickly restore administration, said the governor of the North Kivu province. "I confirm the fall of Rumangabo," said Julien Paluku. "We have just held two meetings in order to discuss how to uplift the population ... and we are announcing the restoration of the civil service within the next 24 hours."
The M23 rebels are just the latest to take over a swath of the country's volatile east. Their members belonged to a now-defunct rebel army which agreed on March 23, 2009 to integrate the national army, in return for abandoning the conflict. These same soldiers mutinied in 2012, claiming that the Congolese had not fulfilled its promises under their accord.
At first ignored, the M23 rebels were buoyed by what a United Nations panel of experts tasked with investigating the conflict said were arms, money and troops from neighboring Rwanda, Congo's smaller but militarily powerful neighbor to the east. In several reports, the panel documented the movement of entire battalions of troops from Rwanda to Congo to fight alongside the M23, travelling across the unpatrolled jungle footpaths separating the two nations.
Fighting between the two sides has flared and ebbed throughout the past year, each time ending with stalled peace talks, hosted in Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda.
Former Senator Russell Feingold, the United States' special envoy for the Great Lakes and Congo, told reporters in Paris after a trip to the region that the two sides need to return to the negotiating table.
"My belief and the belief of the U.S. government and the larger international community is that this is not a situation for a military solution," he said. "Our belief is that the best thing now is to have the fighting stop so in the next few days an agreement in Kampala can be finalized."
Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Kinshasa, Congo. Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations, and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.