KAMPALA, Uganda: The top commander of Congo's M23 rebel movement and about 1,700 of his fighters surrendered to Ugandan authorities following defeat by Congolese troops, a Ugandan military official said Thursday.
The move raised hopes the rebels might sign a peace settlement after 19 months of a brutal insurgency that displaced thousands of people in eastern Congo's North Kivu province.
M23 commander Gen. Sultani Makenga and his fighters were being held by the Ugandan military in Mgahinga, a forested area near the Congolese border.
The rebels had been disarmed and were being registered by Ugandan officials, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give this information.
Makenga, 39, is the subject of U.S. sanctions. The United Nations has also imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on him for "serious violations of international law involving the targeting of women and children" in armed conflict in eastern Congo. Makenga emerged as the rebel group's commander earlier this year following a violent split within M23 that saw the ouster of Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who then fled to Rwanda before handing himself over to United States authorities.
"Makenga should be arrested and immediately brought before the courts," North Kivu Gov. Julien Paluku told The Associated Press. "He should be made to answer for his actions in eastern Congo."
Paluku disputed the tally of 1,700 M23 combatants, saying it seems too high in light of all the defections in recent weeks.
It is unlikely that Uganda, which has been hosting peace talks between the rebels and Congo's government, will immediately extradite Makenga to Congo -likely a reason the rebel leader and his fighters fled to Uganda.
The senior Ugandan official who spoke to The Associated Press about Makenga's surrender said the rebel leader and his fighters would be under Ugandan protection until regional governments, including those of Rwanda and Congo, agree on how to deal with "negative forces" in the region.
Regional leaders have in the past urged Congo's government to solve the "legitimate grievances" of M23.
Angelo Izama, a Ugandan analyst who runs a regional security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote, said Makenga's surrender to Ugandan authorities "may have to do with his sensitivity for the pressure Rwanda finds itself under" for its alleged links to M23.
A report by U.N. experts has said Rwanda's government provided weapons, recruits and training to M23 rebels. That report also said some in Uganda's military aided M23, charges denied by both Rwanda and Uganda.
Izama noted that Uganda and Rwanda are "faithful" allies whose interests in eastern Congo are similar. Their militaries have in the past invaded Congo to fight militias opposed to their governments that operate in Congo's largely lawless east, he said.
M23 launched its rebellion in April 2012, becoming the latest reincarnation of a Tutsi rebel group dissatisfied with the Congolese government. The rebels accused Congo's government of failing to honor all the terms of a peace deal signed in March 2009 with M23's precursor group, the CNDP.
At their peak the M23 rebels overtook Goma, the eastern provincial capital, and threatened to march toward the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. But in the past year they had been substantially weakened by internal divisions and alleged waning Rwandan support. The Congolese military capitalized on these rebel setbacks by pushing ahead with new offensives beginning in August that were supported by a brigade of United Nations forces with a mandate to attack the rebels.
This week the rebels lost control of all the territory they once held following an intensified offensive by Congolese troops backed by U.N. forces. After their last major stronghold fell last week, the rebels appeared to flee from the border town of Bunagana to the surrounding hills and forests. Earlier this week the rebels' civilian leader, Bertrand Bisimwa, announced the rebellion was over, saying he wanted to work with Congo's government toward finding a political solution to violence in eastern Congo.
A group of international envoys to Africa's Great Lakes region, including U.S. envoy Russ Feingold, has been urging a political solution to eastern Congo's latest rebel crisis. Peace talks in Uganda aimed at getting both sides to sign an accord have repeatedly stalled since December, but a final accord may now be signed after Congolese troops militarily defeated the rebels.
Feingold said Wednesday that an agreement between M23 and Congo's government "has been worked out in great detail" and could be signed by both parties within days. But the deal offers no amnesty for rebels who face serious criminal charges, he said.
"That is not happening in this case if this agreement goes through the way I believe it will go through, and certainly, the international community and the United States would not support such an agreement," Feingold said, talking about blanket amnesty for M23 rebels.
Congo's U.N. Ambassador Ignace Gata told reporters after a Security Council meeting Wednesday that "the government wants to complete the Kampala talks and in coming days we will sign a document with the M23."
"It is not excluded that elements from the M23 be integrated into the army. But the conditions for integration have to be defined," Gata said.