Democratic Republic of Congo’s army said on Monday it had recovered two strategic villages near the eastern border with Uganda after they were seized overnight by fighters from the M23 rebel group.
The takeover of Tshanzu and Runyoni led to fierce fighting between the assailants and army troops and sent thousands of people streaming across the border into Uganda, local and Ugandan officials said.
The M23, which seized large swathes of territory during an insurrection in 2012 and 2013, denied it was involved in any fighting.
Tshanzu and Runyoni were the last redoubts of the M23 before its fighters were chased by Congolese and United Nations forces into Uganda and Rwanda in 2013.
“We have not only recovered Tshanzu, which was the most strategic, but all our positions,” Lieutenant-Colonel Muhindo Luanzo, assistant to the administrator of Rutshuru territory, told Reuters. “Right now, there is no more fighting.”
Ugandan authorities said about 5 000 people fled the fighting across the border and more were still arriving.
The army said the attacks were only the lastest in a series of provocations by M23 fighters in recent years.
Since the M23’s defeat in 2013, there have been regional efforts to demobilise the group, but its leaders have complained about the slow pace at which a peace accord has been implemented.
In a statement, M23 president Bertrand Bisimwa acknowledged that some fighters from the group are in Congo waiting to be demobilised but said they had nothing to gain by seizing the villages.
“It is ill-advised to believe that our movement can engage in hostilities with the (army) at this time, when the partnership with the government is improving and all hopes are still alive,” he said.
UN investigators have previously accused Rwanda and Uganda, which intervened militarily in Congo during two regional wars two decades ago, of supporting the M23. The two countries deny this.
The army said in an earlier statement that the attacks took place at a time when Congo is working to improve relations with neighbouring countries. President Felix Tshisekedi hopes closer ties can help end the bloodshed that has plagued eastern Congo for nearly three decades.