Uganda’s government said the leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebel group surrendered with at least 1,600 fighters, as a spokesman for the insurgents denied the claim.
Sultani Makenga turned himself in in the southwestern Ugandan district of Kisoro, Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said on his Twitter account today. “The surrender of M23 will lead to possible signing of agreement Monday next week,” he said. M23 ended its insurgency on Nov. 5 after a series of victories by Congo’s army.
“These are lies,” Amani Kabasha, a spokesman for M23, said in a phone interview from Uganda near the former rebel stronghold of Bunagana in Congo, when asked about the surrender. Mukenga is “nearby,” he said, without elaborating.
M23 rebels began deserting Congo’s armed forces last March, saying the government had not respected a 2009 peace agreement that integrated them into the army. They held the eastern trading hub of Goma for 11 days last November before withdrawing under international pressure to begin peace talks that are currently under way in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Major Robert Ngabirano, a deputy spokesman for the Ugandan army, said about 1,700 M23 fighters have surrendered so far, though he was unable to confirm whether Makenga was among them.
“They range from the rank of colonel to civilians who claim to be M23 cadres,” Ngabirano said in a phone interview from Kampala. “They have been disarmed.”
Congo’s government expects Uganda will eventually turn over Makenga and other M23 leaders to Congolese authorities, Media Minister Lambert Mende said from Paris today.
Uganda “cannot give any protection to those who are being pursued for war crimes,” he said. “Makenga is on the list of criminals sought by our justice system and by the international justice system.”
Makenga is on the United Nations sanctions list for alleged violations of international law including rape and the use of child soldiers. More than 734,000 people have been displaced in the Congolese province of North Kivu since May 2012, soon after the M23 rebellion began, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The UN has about 19,000 peacekeepers in Congo, and has been supporting Congo’s army in its offensive against the rebels.
The country has struggled to put an end to conflict in its mineral-rich east, which began in the mid-1990s in the aftermath of neighboring Rwanda’s genocide. Dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups are still active in the region, which is rich in tin ore, gold and coltan, an ore used in smartphones and laptops.
The M23 was the most recent incarnation of a series of rebellions backed by Rwanda, according to Congo’s government. Rwanda denies supporting the rebels, who, like Rwanda’s government, are mainly led by ethnic-Tutsis.