TSHANZU, Democratic Republic of Congo -- The Democratic Republic of Congo's M23 rebel group declared an end to its 20-month insurgency on Tuesday and said it was ready to pursue a political solution after the army captured its last two hilltop strongholds.
The M23 made its announcement hours after government forces drove the rebels out of Tshanzu and Runyoni before dawn, following a two-week offensive that cornered the insurgents in heavily wooded hills along the border with Uganda and Rwanda.
"The chief of staff and the commanders of all major units are requested to prepare troops for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration on terms to be agreed with the government of Congo," M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa said in a statement.
The United States welcomed the declaration as a "significant positive step" for eastern Congo, a region beset for more than 15 years by conflict fueled by competition for gold, copper and cobalt as well as cross-border ethnic tensions.
A meeting of regional leaders in South Africa said earlier on Tuesday that President Joseph Kabila's government would sign a peace deal within days if rebels laid down their arms.
In the distant capital, Kinshasa, thousands of women dressed in white marched down the central boulevard to parliament chanting songs praising Kabila and the army.
It marked a dramatic turnaround for the 42-year-old leader. Only a year ago, M23 had swept aside U.N. peacekeepers and the army to capture Goma, the largest town in eastern Congo.
That defeat led to the deployment of a tough new U.N. Intervention Brigade and to increased diplomatic pressure on neighboring Rwanda and Uganda not to meddle in the conflict, changing the tide of events. M23 has been riven by defections and factional fighting.
Martin Kobler, head of a 19,850-member U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, said attention would turn to scores of smaller armed groups operating in the lawless east, including the Rwandan Hutu FDLR.
"We have teeth and we are using those teeth," Kobler said in Pretoria, referring to the 3,000-strong Intervention Brigade.
The Rwandan Hutu FDLR will likely be the next priority for Congo's army and U.N. troops, analysts said.
The FDLR includes some Hutus who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus and has long been used by Kigali as a pretext for intervening in Congo.
A plethora of smaller local rebel groups, ranging from the oil- and gold-rich Ituri district in the northeast to the copper-producing Katanga province in the southeast, also undermine Kinshasa's grip on its eastern border zones.
"The military victories over the M23 will send a very strong message to the many other armed groups operating in the east," said Stephanie Wolters of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Pretoria. "It may prompt them to consider the advantages of a negotiated solution over a drawn-out military campaign."