JOHANNESBURG— South African police have arrested 19 suspected members of the M23 rebel group that launched a rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year.
Authorities say the arrests were made early Tuesday in South Africa's northern Limpopo province. In a statement, South African police said they believed the suspects were trying to "overthrow" the D.R.C.'s government.
Police spokesman Lindela Mashigo would not say what evidence police collected to support their suspicions, but said the South African police operation was well-planned.
“The takedown follows months of intelligence collection on the alleged rebels whose objective is believed to be overthrow the DRC government," Mashigo said. "It was carried out with precision; it was executed meticulously by our special task force members. So there were no faults, there were no injuries, I can report.”
The group faces charges under the Foreign Military Assistance Act, a broad law that, among other things, prohibits armed groups from planning to overthrow a government from inside South Africa. Considered by some a magnet for asylum seekers, South Africa is a common destination for political exiles and those considered terrorists by their home nations. Earlier this month, for example, a South African court convicted Nigerian militant leader Henry Okah on 13 terrorism charges for his involvement in bombings that killed 12 people in Nigeria’s capital on the nation’s independence day in 2010.
Arrests amid talks
The arrests of the suspected M23 rebels come amid peace talks between the militant group and Congolese officials in Uganda. The talks were organized after the group launched a rebellion last year and briefly took control of the eastern city of Goma before agreeing to withdraw and engage in talks.
An agreement called for M23 forces to withdraw 20 kilometers from Goma but the group has not complied.
In an interview with VOA French to Africa reporter Nicolas Pinault, M23's military leader General Sultani Makenga said the rebel group remains near Goma because Congolese officials have not upheld provisions of the agreement.
"They were supposed to have a battalion of the M23 in the airport – right now, there is no battalion of the M23 in the airport," he said. "And they were supposed to have a neutral zone between both forces, and right now there is no kind of neutral zone.”
In the Sunday interview, Makenga also said M23 would not back a U.N. proposal that would allow the use of surveillance drones in the eastern D.R.C. as part of a peacekeeping mission.
"They cannot approve of this decision," he said. "This is not a good thing because we have problems in the region and the drones are not going to solve these problems.”
M23 is made up of former rebels who were integrated into the Congolese army in a 2009 peace agreement, but then deserted last year, complaining of discrimination and poor treatment.
When asked if M23 would consider reintegrating into the Congolese army, Makenga said it would be "difficult to integrate into something that does not exist." He called for talks in creating what he called a "real army," saying "we are all Congolese."
The DRC has been unable to gain control over the country's volatile east since the end of a civil war in 2003.