JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Congo's M23 rebels, the latest in a succession of militias responsible for horrific attacks on civilians in the east of the country, effectively surrendered Tuesday when they announced that they were laying down their arms and disbanding.
The announcement comes after the Democratic Republic of Congo's army heavily bombarded two hills overnight, Chanzu and Runyonyi, the last rebel strongholds. In recent days the rebels abandoned a swath of territory, including many towns and villages, after being overpowered by Congolese army attacks.
M23, an ethnic Tutsi militia, has been led and armed by Rwandan forces who often crossed into Congo, according to a report by experts who advise the United Nations. It is the successor to other Tutsi militias in the region with close ties to Rwanda.
But it is not the only group responsible for atrocities against civilians in eastern Congo, an area with a plethora of competing militias. Congolese army forces have also been implicated in past abuses, as have the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, an ethnic Hutu militia that includes some leaders of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa announced Tuesday that the rebels had decided to lay down their arms and pursue the resolution of their grievances through political means.
"The chief of general staff and the commanders of all major [M23] units are requested to prepare troops for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration on terms to be agreed with the government of Congo," he said in a statement signed in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Russell Feingold, U.S. special envoy to Congo and the Great Lakes region, said the issues of disarmament and reintegration were crucial to a lasting peace.
"In a region that has suffered so much, this is obviously a significant positive step" he told journalists in the South African capital, Pretoria, where regional leaders had met the previous day and urged the signing of a Congolese peace agreement.
Reuters news agency reported that M23 rebels set fire to munitions depots and military trucks before fleeing into the forest.
The whereabouts of M23's military leadership, including a dozen wanted by Congo for alleged war crimes, isn't clear, although analysts speculated they fled into Rwanda or Uganda. The Congolese government is now likely to call on its neighbors to surrender the men so that they can stand trial.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said on Twitter in French that about 100 M23 rebels had surrendered to government forces or been captured. Government forces were pursuing other "negative forces" in the region, he said.
Eastern Congo remains awash with rebels and gunmen, but Mende said there was no place for armed militias in the region. He cited groups such as the FDLR, Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces, another Ugandan rebel group.
After accusations that Rwanda had offered M23 significant military help as recently as August, analysts said the rebels' allies in Kigali appeared to stay out of the final fight -- one reason why M23 collapsed so swiftly.
It is the first time that the Congolese army has crushed one of the major rebel groups operating in eastern Congo, after a major reorganization of the army this year by President Joseph Kabila.
M23's defeat also follows the deployment of a new kind of U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo -- a unit with authority to go on the offensive against rebel groups, rather than wait for them to attack and then try to protect civilians.
South African Rooivalk helicopters were used for the first time in the final assault on M23 positions, according to African military analyst Darren Olivier, writing in the African Defense Review on Tuesday.
"The helicopters fired multiple 70 mm rocket salvos against M23 bunkers near Chanzu in what is a mountainous region close to the Rwandan border," Olivier wrote. "Early reports from sources in the area indicate that the action was successful, with the Rooivalks' tactical approach through the clouds taking the M23 defenders by surprise and their rocket fire being accurate enough to disperse them and destroy one of the 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns that had been previously used to fire at the Rooivalks and other helicopters."
M23's decision to demobilize offers a rare opportunity for the Congolese government and international community to take steps toward peace in one of the world's most troubled neighborhoods.
But analysts warned that unless the Congolese army and U.N. intervention brigade disperse other armed groups -- particularly the FDLR, which is seen as a threat by Rwanda -- it is likely that another militia will emerge to take M23's place.
"The M23 is only one of many armed groups operating in the eastern DRC," wrote Stephanie Wolters, a regional conflict analyst at the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, on Tuesday. "There are many others that have long rendered the lives of the population in these parts a living nightmare and that still need to be tackled politically and militarily."
The advances by the Congolese army followed the breakdown of peace talks with M23, which wanted to see the group's leaders, including those wanted for war crimes, reintegrated into the army, a demand rejected by the Congolese government.
Wolters said that M23 had been severely damaged, not just by its military defeats, but by the reaction of the Congolese people in areas it abandoned.
"The reaction of relief and joy among the majority of people living in the liberated areas also further damages the M23's desire to cast itself as a popular movement with wide appeal, and it will be difficult to ever recover from that," she wrote.
Wolters said international pressure on Rwanda over its interference in the region -- and a more robust U.N. and army presence in eastern Congo -- could persuade Rwanda to end its military support for rebel groups like M23.
"It will be more difficult for Rwanda, under such circumstances, to continue to clandestinely support the M23 or other groups. Combined with growing criticism of Rwanda's role in the DRC, this could lead Rwanda to conclude that it is time to end its interference in that area," Wolters wrote. "The imminent deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles that will monitor the border areas will also make it more difficult for Rwandan involvement to remain under the radar."
Congo analyst Christoph Vogel wrote in a blog post Tuesday that M23's end "may well signify the final stage of what has been an 'era of armed movements' in eastern Congo."
"This does not mean, however, that underlying problems are solved," he said. Despite the successes of the Congolese army and U.N. intervention brigade, "the root causes and grievances may be left unaddressed again, if a political agreement does not add up to what happened on the battleground."
Unless the Congolese Tutsi community is given social and political representation, he said, a new rebellion would likely emerge in the future.