GOMA, Congo (AP) — East African regional forces have regained control of Bunagana, a strategic town in eastern Congo that had been held by M23 rebels for more than nine months, a spokesman for the regional force said Monday.
Ugandan forces officially deployed to Bunagana and will establish a foothold in the area and give the M23 forces time to vacate, said Capt. Kato Ahmad Hassan, spokesman for the Ugandan contingent of the regional force. “We appreciate the command of the M23 for being cooperative to the contingent, for according us a safe passage and for allowing us to occupy Bunagana,” he said.
M23 did not respond to request for comment about their departure from Bunagana.
The rebels’ departure from Bunagana has been a key demand during several rounds of mediation efforts on the crisis in eastern Congo, where more than 120 armed groups have been fighting for land, power and resources and some to protect their communities.
M23 rose to prominence 10 years ago when its fighters seized Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city on the border with Rwanda. It derives its name from a March 23, 2009, peace deal, which it accuses the Congo government of not implementing.
After being largely dormant for a decade, the M23 resurfaced in late 2021 and started capturing territory. Congo has long accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 group and powerful voices in the West back that assertion — which Rwanda strongly denies. Earlier this year regional heads of state urged an immediate cease-fire by all parties and sought more troops for a regional force sent to eastern Congo last year.
Ugandan troops, which are part of the East African Community Regional Force in eastern Congo, will now try to bring about M23’s sequenced withdrawal from other areas under rebel control including Kiwanja and Mabenga.
Bunagana is located only 60 kilometers (37 miles) northeast of Goma, which also serves as a hub for international aid organizations and the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO. The town is also near the border with Uganda, making it an important transit point for goods being imported into Congo from as far away as China.
While the withdrawal is a positive step, it doesn’t signify a lasting resolution to the conflict, said Trupti Agrawal, senior analyst for East Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The pullout is a sign of progress on regional mediation efforts, but that itself is a highly fragile process,” he said.
Malkia reported from Kinshasa. Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza contributed from Kampala, Uganda.