RUMANGABO, Congo – The Congolese army colonel marched triumphantly into town, welcomed by cheering crowds waving palm leaves after his soldiers retook this base in their latest offensive to quash the M23 rebels.
"Congo for the Congolese!" Col. Mamadou Ndala proclaimed in Swahili to applause and adulation, as women threw flowers and shouted out the names of army commanders.
The recapturing of Rumangabo from the M23 rebels, who are allegedly backed by neighboring Rwanda, is the army's sixth such victory since Saturday. It's a marked turnaround from a year ago when neither the army nor the U.N. peacekeepers kept the same rebels from seizing Goma, a city of 1 million people.
With more help than ever from U.N. forces, Congo's military is now taking advantage of an apparent weakening within the M23 movement that got its start in April 2012. The stepped-up offensive also comes as neighboring Rwanda faces growing pressure over the rebels. The Rwandan government denies it supports the rebels, despite evidence laid out by a U.N. group of experts.
One U.N. diplomat on Monday said the rebels have abandoned nearly all their positions except for a small triangle near the Rwandan border.
"If these military victories are followed up with serious regional pressure on Rwanda and on M23 to forge some kind of sustainable peace, then this could be a turning point," said Michael Deibert, author of "The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair."
Deibert added that Congo's army is often accused of human rights abuses and of a lack of accountability and that these need to be addressed to prevent a reversal of fortune.
The M23 rebels say they want to pursue peace talks, though they have repeated failed and stalled over such issues as amnesty. M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha accused the Congolese government of "provoking fighting with the intention of blaming civilian deaths on M23 and justifying once more the U.N. intervention brigade against our soldiers."
Several Tanzanian peacekeepers have been killed since August. This week the U.N. troops have been in armored personnel carriers and jeeps with mounted machine guns several kilometers (miles) behind the army forces.
Eastern Congo has been wracked by conflict since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, after which Hutu extremists crossed over into Congo. M23 is only the latest rebel group to menace the mineral-rich region.
The insurgency was born out of an earlier rebel movement that had signed a 2009 peace deal with the government. The fighters said the Congolese government hadn't held up its end of the deal that called for the rebels to be integrated into the national army, among other things.
With the purported help of Rwanda, M23 quickly grew in strength and briefly held Goma in November 2012 before bowing to international pressure and retreating. In March, M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda turned himself in to face charges at the International Criminal Court, a move that experts say has seriously weakened the rebels.
"The movement is unable to control its entire territory and suffers from poor morale and scores of desertions," a U.N. group of experts said in a report in late July.
Estimates now put the M23 group at 1,000 fighters. However, residents living in border regions claim that soldiers cross from Rwanda into Congo during M23 fighting which makes it difficult to estimate the group's current size.
Timo Mueller, a Goma-based researcher with the Enough Project, an advocacy group active in eastern Congo, said the M23's retreat from strategically important towns and hills in recent days is surprising.
"That would suggest that they cannot hold ground and confront a very ambitious and more professional Congolese army," he said. "I understand that they're scattering or have scattered. I wouldn't say it's necessarily the military end."
Even if the M23 is defeated, he said, the rebels would need to be disarmed and for them to give up their weapons they would need security guarantees to prevent attacks by the army or angry citizens.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.