RUMANGABO, Congo (AP) — 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 international pressure over the Congolese rebels, who come from the same ethnic group as Rwanda's president. 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 now have abandoned nearly all their positions except for a small triangle near the Rwandan border.
Martin Kobler, the U.N. special representative for Congo, told the U.N. Security Council that "We are witnessing the military end of the M23," according to French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud.
"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."
Congo's army, though, 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, he added.
Meanwhile, abuses allegedly committed by M23 rebels may have been the cause of the joyous reception the Congolese troops received from locals when they rolled into Rumangabo on Monday.
The M23 movement — which grew out of another rebel group — is accused of committing scores of atrocities during its reign over the east Congo villages. Human Rights Watch says in addition to recruiting child soldiers, the rebels have killed at least 44 people and raped dozens of women.
The rebels say they want to pursue peace talks but those efforts have repeatedly 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."
The ramped-up U.N. force that has aided Congolese soldiers since August has a mandate that allows it to fight rebels alongside the Congolese military, whereas before peacekeepers could only protect civilians. The brigade, which has employed attack helicopters, is credited with reinvigorating the military offensive, though the full extent of its involvement is unclear.
This week the U.N. troops lingered in armored personnel carriers and jeeps with mounted machine guns several kilometers (miles) behind the army forces. Several Tanzanian peacekeepers have been killed since August.
The military is also facing an increasingly divided rebel movement. A recent U.N. group of experts report said M23 "is unable to control its entire territory and suffers from poor morale and scores of desertions."
Eastern Congo has been wracked by conflict since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, and 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. Internal power struggles created divisions within the movement and by March, M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda turned himself in to face charges at the International Criminal Court.
A U.N. group of experts says Ntaganda's successor has received less help from Rwanda, a significant factor in the weakening of the M23 movement.
"M23 has lost the support of leaders and communities that supported Ntaganda in northern Rwanda and has stopped benefiting from the recruitment and financial networks that he established," the experts said.
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."
M23 has re-emerged from previous battle setbacks, and rebel groups have rebranded themselves under new names and leaders.
"I wouldn't say it's necessarily the military end," Mueller said.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.