DR Congo claims defeat of M23 rebels

media captionBBC reporter Maud Jullien: "Now that the rebels have agreed to disarm, a peace deal can be signed"

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed victory over M23 rebels in the east of the country.

A government spokesman said the last remaining rebels had either fled across the border or surrendered and their weapons had been destroyed overnight.

The M23 have not publicly commented on the claim. Kinshasa earlier rejected rebel calls for a truce.

At least 800,000 people have fled their homes since the conflict began in 2012.

Last week, the United Nations special envoy to DR Congo, Martin Kobler, said the group was all but finished as a military threat in DR Congo.

The UN has regularly accused Rwanda and Uganda of supporting the M23 although both governments deny the allegation.

If the M23's defeat is confirmed, it would send an intimidating message to at least 10 other rebel groups operating in the area. raising hopes of an end to two decades of conflict, BBC Africa security correspondent Moses Rono says.

Key base seized

Government spokesman Lambert Mende told the BBC that Congolese special forces had defeated the rebels, after a week of heavy fighting.

"We can say that it's finished. But you never know. Those who escaped can come with hit-and-run operations so we have to end everything politically so that we are sure our people can sleep quietly without any threat."

UN sources have not been able to confirm his statement.

Mr Mende added that rebel military leader Sultani Makenga was among those who had crossed the border either to Rwanda or Uganda.

UN tanks and helicopters were involved in the last push against rebel strongholds on Monday, the BBC's Maud Jullien reports from Goma. A 3,000-strong African brigade to disarm and neutralise rebel groups was approved by the UN earlier this year - in addition to the UN 18,000-member peacekeeping force.

The army has recently had a string of victories, driving the rebels from all towns they once controlled during a 20-month rebellion.

Last week government forces captured Bunagana, the main base of the M23 on the DR Congo-Uganda border.

But clashes continued on Monday and rebels shelled the town, killing four people. The violence prompted thousands of people to flee into Uganda.

The fighting came a day after M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa called for a ceasefire to "allow the continuation of the political process".

He urged rebel commanders to "ensure the strict observance of this order".

But Kinshasa rejected the call.

Government forces backed by the UN captured the strategic hilltop of Mbuzi above Bunagana on Monday, then targeted the remaining hilltops where rebels were holed out.

The BBC's Ignatius Bahizi, on the Ugandan side of the border, said that shooting could be heard overnight but it had stopped early on Tuesday.

Although some refugees had begun returning home, several thousand people were still in a Ugandan camp, he said.

African leaders meeting on Monday in the South African capital, Pretoria, called on the M23 rebels to declare publicly an end to their insurgency.

A statement released after the summit said if they did so a peace agreement could be signed in five days' time.

Peace talks broke down last month in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, following two months of negotiations.

The rebel group, made up of army deserters who are mainly ethnic Tutsis, was named after a 23 March 2009 peace deal signed by the government and a former militia. The rebels accused the government of failing to live up to the terms of the agreement.

Eastern DR Congo has been wracked by conflict since 1994, when Hutu militias fled across the border from Rwanda after carrying out a genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Inside DR Congo
size map
The Democratic Republic of Congo covers 2,344,858 square km of land in the centre of Africa, making it the 12th largest country in the world.
size map
Eastern DR Congo is awash with a variety of different rebel groups – some have come from neighbouring countries, while others have formed as self-defence groups. Many are taking advantage of the lack of a strong state to seize control of the area's mineral riches.
mineral wealth map
DR Congo has abundant mineral wealth. It has more than 70% of the world's coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet's diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite. This wealth however has attracted looters and fuelled the country's civil war.
transport map
Despite the country's size, transport infrastructure is very poor. Of 153,497km of roads, only 2,794km are paved. There are around 4,000 km of railways but much is narrow-gauge track and in poor condition. Waterways are vital to transport goods but journeys can take months to complete. Overcrowded boats frequently capsize, while DR Congo has more plane crashes than any other country.
population map
With an estimated population of 71 million, DR Congo is the fourth most populous country in Africa. Some 35% of the population live in cities and the capital Kinshasa is by far the largest, with more than 8 million inhabitants. DR Congo has around 200 ethnic identities with the majority of people belonging to the Kongo, Luba and Mongo groups.
demographic map
Given its size and resources DR Congo should be a prosperous country, but years of war, corruption and economic mismanagement have left it desperately poor. In 2011 it lags far behind in many key development indicators, with average life expectancy increasing by only 2 years since 1980, after a period when it actually fell during the mid 1990s.