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Bunagana, Demcratic Republic of Congo - The Democratic Republic of Congo army on Friday urged rebel fighters who fled to the hills after being ousted from their last stronghold, to yield and avoid a final offensive.
Some 200 die-hard fighters were holed up in the mountains, at an altitude of about 2 000 metres, near the eastern town of Bunagana, their final base captured by troops on Wednesday, said government spokesman Lambert Mende.
After over a week of heavy fighting around the town in the lush green, hilly region bordering Uganda, army spokesman Olivier Hamuli told AFP the rebels were “caught in a vice”.
“We are giving a final chance to all M23 fighters to surrender,” Hamuli said, as the army carried out mopping up operations in a bid to put an end to an insurgency in the restive, mineral rich North Kivu province.
UN patrols on Friday streamed through on the road leading to Bunagana, a small town without electricity or running water, secured by about 100 army troops.
Some 5,000 people have taken refuge across the border in Uganda since the beginning of the week according to the UN's refugee agency.
Bunagana mayor Leon Bitegeka said “streams of people continue to cross into Uganda” due to the heavy fighting which began eight days ago.
North Kivu governor Julien Paluku said “the objective is to dislodge M23 from the hills overlooking Bunagana”.
One of these hills had been seized Thursday while another was being targeted on Friday.
The M23 movement was founded by ethnic Tutsi former rebels who were incorporated into the Congolese army under a 2009 peace deal but then mutinied in April 2012, claiming that the pact had never been fully implemented.
Kinshasa and the United Nations say the rebels are backed by Rwanda and Uganda, an allegation the two neighbouring countries strongly deny.
At their strongest in November last year, M23 marched into Goma, a mining hub and city of one million people, and took control for 10 days, before regional leaders persuaded them into fresh peace talks.
But the stop-start talks again fell apart last week when Kinshasa refused amnesty for about 80 rebel leaders and the DR Congo army Ä backed by a special United Nations force Ä went on the attack in a bid to end the rebellion once and for all.
The European Union on Friday called for the M23 rebel group to be definitively disbanded.
“We call for a rapid political conclusion to the Kampala talks between the M23 and the government of the DRC with a view to... the definitive dismantling of this armed group,” said Sebastien Brabant, a spokesman for the EU's diplomatic service.
“Actions against other armed groups should be carried out rapidly,” he added.
Russ Feingold, the US special envoy for the Great Lakes region, on Thursday called for mediated peace talks in the region, noting there were still “40 to 45 armed groups in eastern Congo”.
The Kivu region in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo Ä
coveted for its rich mining resources such as gold, coltan and tin Ä is a centre of conflict in the country and wider Great Lakes region.
Kivu borders Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania, and has found itself at the heart of the region's many tragedies and conflicts.
Nearly one million Rwandan Hutu refugees flooded the region in 1994 after the genocide of Tutsis in that country, along with rebels from Burundi and Uganda and tribal militias.
Major regional wars, in 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, ignited in the region, drawing in neighbours and foreign armies battling for control of the former Belgian colony's mineral resources.