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.
"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. The soldiers faced no resistance as they headed from Rumangabo town, according to a reporter for The Associated Press accompanying the troops. The soldiers headed to the nearby military camp, one of the largest in the nation's troubled east, he said. The camp, dating back to the time of ex-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, was taken over by the M23 rebels around one year ago, which they used to train their recruits.
The army troops reached the military camp at around noon local time, and secured the area. The rebel fighters left the town on Sunday afternoon, said Jacques Leon Liripa, a Congolese soldier who had been captured by the rebels in 2012, and was being held in a prison in Rumangabo. The rebels shot into the air as they left, said a Rumangabo resident who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal.
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 more powerful neighbor to the east. In several reports, the panel documented the movement of dozens of troops from Rwanda to Congo to fight alongside the M23, travelling across the unpatrolled jungle footpaths separating the two nations.
The United Nations Security Council planned to meet later Monday to discuss the Congo fighting, in the wake of the killing Sunday of a U.N. peacekeeper from Tanzania by M-23 rebels. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the killing and the Security Council was expected to also issue a condemnation.
Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Kinshasa, Congo. Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal and Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this report.