KAMPALA — Uganda is holding the military commander of Congo's defeated M23 rebel movement after he surrendered, a Ugandan officer said on Thursday, allaying fears that it could still take up arms again.
Sultani Makenga's whereabouts had been unclear since Tuesday's declaration by the M23 that it was ending its 20-month-old insurgency in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, worrying some that he could be hiding with plans to regroup.
His surrender will be seen as a major achievement for the Congolese army, with the backing of a U.N. force, as it strives to restore calm in a region racked by war for two decades.
But analysts have warned against too much optimism for a sustained peace in the east of the vast nation, where the M23 was only one of several armed groups in the mineral-rich region.
"I can confirm to you he [Makenga] is with us,'' a senior Ugandan officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
"He surrendered to us yesterday [Wednesday] and we're holding him somewhere and some other commanders of his,'' he said, adding the group of rebels would be held at an undisclosed location until a peace agreement was signed.
The Congolese government had no immediate comment.
The M23 group declared an end to its military campaign and said it would seek political talks after Congolese troops routed them from their hide-outs with the support of a U.N. force of African troops with a mandate to intervene.
"We have roughly about 1,500 M23 combatants who surrendered to us. We have disarmed all of them and we're in the process of documenting and categorising all their weapons,'' said Captain Ronald Kakurungu, army spokesperson for Uganda's Western region.
That number of 1,500 is higher than most previous estimates of the strength of the M23, which experts had generally believed to have dwindled in recent months to a few hundred.
Other armed groups
But political analysts said the defeat of the M23 did not mean that a return of order in Congo's east was assured.
"Just because you think you've beaten back the M23 rabble rousers in the east, do you really think it can become a stable country? I don't think so,'' said Martyn Davies, chief executive of the Johannesburg-based Frontier Advisory.
"This time next year, you'll be looking at an 'M24','' said Davies, whose firm advises on Africa and other emerging markets.
The M23, which U.N. experts and Western powers had said was backed by Rwanda, initially launched its campaign when it said a peace deal with another Tutsi-led group had not been honored by the Congolese government.
Rwanda, whose troops have been involved in several conflicts in Congo over the years, repeatedly denied backing the M23. But it has said eastern Congo still harbors Hutu extremists behind a 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Kigali has long accused Congo's armed forces of tolerating, and even cooperating with, Hutu insurgents in the east from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Diplomats at the United Nations said the Congolese army and 3,000-strong U.N. intervention force MONUSCO could now turn their attention to other rebels in Congo's east, which does not even have a tarmac road connecting it to the capital Kinshasa.
"The general consensus was that we have to handle the other armed groups, and among which - I guess on the front line if I may say - the FDLR,'' French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said after a briefing of the 15-member Security Council on Congo.
Millions of people have died from violence, disease and hunger since the 1990s as dozens of rebel groups have fought for control of eastern Congo's rich deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and uranium.
Last month, Washington said it would block U.S. military aid to Rwanda because of its "support for the M23, a rebel group which continues to actively recruit and abduct children'' and which has posed a threat to the stability of Congo.
A senior U.S. official said on Wednesday that Washington would consider resuming military aid to Rwanda if it found Rwandan support for M23 had ended.
According to U.N. diplomats at the Security Council briefing on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said: "The wolf at the door, the M23, was threatening civilians, was threatening MONUSCO. We hope that the threat of this wolf at the door is now gone for good.''