By Kenny Katombe
BUNAGANA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - C ongolese troops entered the eastern border town of Bunagana on Wednesday after M23 rebels abandoned the last major town they were holding, leaving civilians to celebrate in the streets.
The town was the first seized last year by M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its loss is the latest significant success in an offensive by Congo's U.N.-backed army, which is seeking to crush a 20-month-old rebellion.
A Reuters reporter in Bunagana said residents cheered the arrival of Congolese government troops, calling them liberators. Rebels appeared to have withdrawn before the army arrived.
A Congolese army officer in Goma, the regional capital, told Reuters government troops would now move to mop up pockets of rebel fighters in the hills around Bunagana.
Roger Lumbala, a former member of parliament who is a senior member of the M23 negotiating team at peace talks in Uganda, confirmed the rebels had pulled back but said this was a result of diplomatic pressure on the group.
"It is the diplomatic push that has led M23 to withdraw its troops from the major towns," he told Reuters by telephone.
Lumbala said Ugandan mediators had sent a helicopter to pick up M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa and that the group was ready to sign a peace deal with the government.
Bunagana was strategic throughout the rebellion as it allowed rebels to control lucrative cross-border taxation and gave them access to Uganda and Rwanda, countries accused by U.N. experts of backing M23. Both nations deny supporting the rebels.
Since peace talks stalled last week, U.N.-backed Congolese forces have closed in on M23 positions across North Kivu province.
M23 is the latest incarnation of insurgents led by Tutsis in eastern Congo to take up arms against the Kinshasa government following the end of Congo's last major war a decade ago.
Underscoring the cyclical nature of conflict in the mineral-rich east, M23 emerged from a previous rebellion and its leaders complain the Kinshasa government failed to implement a previous peace deal.
Kinshasa wants to impose a military solution on the rebellion and the French ambassador to the United Nations said on Monday M23 was "militarily finished".
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, said on its Twitter page on Wednesday that "several dozen" M23 rebels had turned themselves in.
But some, including the United States, have called for a return to talks, warning of further violence if no diplomatic solution is found.
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- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Democratic Republic of Congo