Congo's M23 rebel chief, scores of fighters surrender in Uganda

Congo's M23 rebel chief, scores of fighters surrender in Uganda
In a photo from March, M23 rebel leader Sultani Makenga is seen at a gathering of the group's political wing. (Isaac Kasamani / AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The leader of the rebel group M23, wanted by Congolese authorities for alleged war crimes, has surrendered to Ugandan authorities, according to local media and news agency reports Thursday.

Uganda's Daily Monitor cited an unnamed senior Ugandan military officer saying Sultani Makenga and other senior leaders of the Congolese rebel group surrendered Wednesday in Uganda.


About 1,700 M23 rebels gave up with Makenga, agencies reported, and were being held at Mgahinga National Park near Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Makenga's surrender comes after the M23 militia was routed in recent weeks by Congolese troops backed by a new United Nations intervention brigade mandated by the Security Council to engage and attack rebel forces.

The surrender, which marked the first time the Congolese army had managed to defeat a major rebel group, averted fears that M23 would try to fight on.

Analysts were cautiously optimistic that the lose offered an opportunity to pursue peace in the troubled region, which has seen nearly two decades of conflict. But they also warned that there was a long way to go, with dozens of militias still operating in the area and little clarity about whether neighboring Rwanda has abandoned a policy of militarily involvement in the region.

At the last round of peace talks, M23 demanded its leaders be given amnesty for any war crimes, a key stumbling block that caused the talks to collapse. The rebel group would return to the negotiating table in a weakened position.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila has ruled out amnesty for M23 leaders and integration of their fighters in the army -- a formula in past peace deals that critics said created a culture of impunity for rebels who committed crimes against humanity. The approach also created a motive for rebel groups to rise up and seize territory, because they were rewarded with jobs in peace agreements.

Makenga's surrender will put pressure on Uganda, with Kabila likely to call for the M23 officers to be handed over so they can stand trial in Congo.

A Ugandan spokesman told the BBC that no decision had been taken on whether to hand over the M23 leaders. However, a Ugandan military officer told the Associated Press the M23 leaders were under Ugandan protection until regional leaders had agreed on how to deal with "negative forces" in their portion of Africa.

There are dozens of rebel groups still operating in eastern Congo, some of them perceived as threats by Uganda and Rwanda.

Makenga was placed last year on the U.S. sanctions list for alleged atrocities that included using child soldiers and attacking civilians. He is also on the U.N. sanctions list. He was among rebels who were given amnesty and positions in the Congolese army under a 2009 peace deal, only to rebel again in April of last year, seizing a swathe of territory and launching attacks on civilians.

According to a U.N. statement last November, Makenga "has committed and is responsible for serious violations of international law involving the targeting of women and children in situations of armed conflict, including killing and maiming, sexual violence, abduction, and forced displacement.  He has also been responsible for violations of international law related to M23's actions in recruiting or using children in armed conflict in the DRC [Congo].

"Under the command of Sultani Makenga, M23 has carried out extensive atrocities against the civilian population of the DRC.  According to testimonies and reports, the militants operating under the command of Sultani Makenga have conducted rapes throughout Rutshuru territory against women and children, some of whom have been as young as 8 years old, as part of a policy to consolidate control in Rutshuru territory.

"Under Makenga's command, M23 has conducted extensive forced recruitment campaigns of children in the DRC and in the region, as well as killing, maiming, and injuring scores of children. Many of the forced child recruits have been under the age of 15," the U.N. statement said.

Neighboring Rwanda has been implicated in arming, supporting and fighting alongside M23 in eastern Congo, but has always the accusations.

Uganda is also accused of arming and supporting Congolese rebels.


Twitter: @latimesdixon