M23 rebels. Picture: REUTERS
M23 rebels. Picture: REUTERS

Kampala — Uganda’s government has repatriated 70 former Congolese rebels and their families, who had volunteered to return home five years after they were defeated.

The 70 former soldiers, as well as 10 family members, had all been members of a rebel group called M23.

“Uganda handed over 70 former combatants of the M23 rebels to the Democratic Republic of Congo government, under the voluntary repatriation programme,” Ugandan ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson Moses Kasujja said.

UN officials watched as the group boarded a plane in Uganda’s main airport in Entebbe, he said.

The M23 were former members of a Tutsi militia who had been integrated in the DRC army under a 2009 peace deal. In 2012 they rebelled again, claiming the deal had not been respected.

They briefly seized the eastern city of Goma, but a year later they were defeated and forced out of the country by a joint UN and DRC army offensive. Several hundred ended up living in a Ugandan-run camp in the west of the country.

The 70 who flew back on Tuesday are not the first to go home, with a total of 316 now having been officially repatriated. However, others went back earlier.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch accused the Kinshasa government of recruiting former M23 soldiers to suppress protests. The DRC’s resource-rich east has suffered nearly two decades of brutal conflict, with neighbouring states backing rebel groups in a civil war against Kinshasa’s authority.