Chanzu - The Democratic Republic of Congo army scored a crushing defeat of the M23 rebels but Kinshasa says it will not rest on its laurels as many more armed groups rove the volatile east.
Further fighting is already in the offing with the government vowing to eradicate Rwandan Hutu fighters, also active in the mineral-rich region, who include the remnants of the militia that carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
An offensive is “being planned, but we cannot announce it”, an army spokesman for the eastern North Kivu region, Lieutenant-Colonel Olivier Amuli, told AFP Wednesday.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the M23 was only the first of a plethora of well-armed and organised groups in Kinshasa's sights.
“There is no more place in our country for any irregular group,” Mende said Tuesday, adding: “The M23 was at the top of the list; they were replaced by the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). We will get on with disarming them.”
Kinshasa has been repeatedly accused of using the FDLR as pawns in a complex proxy war with neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, in turn accused of backing groups such as the M23.
The rebels' crushing defeat appeared to signal that the Rwandan government had finally yielded to intense diplomatic pressure and chosen to abandon its alleged proxy.
Rwanda's minority Tutsi-led government has adamantly denied supporting the M23, which was founded by former Tutsi rebels who were incorporated into the Congolese army under a 2009 peace deal which they charge was never fully implemented.
On Wednesday, at the hilltop outpost of Chanzu that was one of the rebels' last stands, soldiers and UN peacekeepers sifted through the materiel they left behind Ä including olive-green rockets allegedly used by the Rwandan military.
“These are not supplied to the (Congolese army), it's Rwanda that uses this weapon,” a soldier told AFP.
The disbanding of the M23 marks the clearest and most significant military victory for the Congolese government since the 1963 crushing of a separatist rebellion in the southern province of Katanga.
Analysts say better preparation by the Congolese troops and the unprecedented offensive mandate granted to the special UN brigade tipped the military balance.
The heavily armed 3 000-strong UN intervention brigade joined 17 000 peacekeepers already deployed with a mission to stamp out rebel groups accused of human rights abuses including rape, murder and recruiting child soldiers.
The M23's surrender after 18 months of fighting, would not be cause “to get out the champagne”, Russ Feingold, the US special envoy for the Great Lakes region, said last week ahead of the decisive battles.
He said the ethnic Tutsi group was “only one of 40 to 45 armed groups in eastern Congo”.
Washington on Tuesday hailed the M23 surrender and urged regional states to initiate “a broader dialogue... addressing the root causes of chronic instability in the DRC and the Great Lakes”.
The UN refugee agency said Tuesday that the recent fighting had forced 10 000 civilians to flee across the border to Uganda, Rwanda's neighbour to the north.
Christian humanitarian group World Vision warned: “There's a long way to go before normal life can resume.”
In a statement, food aid manager Davies Bishi added: “The last 20 months of conflict has left a humanitarian legacy that will continue long after the latest violence has ended.”
The area of North and South Kivu has a bloody history. It saw the birth of the 1996 Rwandan-backed rebellion that toppled Mobutu Sese Seko and installed Laurent-Desire Kabila, the father of the current president.
The region was also the detonator of the 1998-2003 conflict known as the Great African War, which involved nine countries and claimed more than 2.5 million lives.