KINSHASA Hundreds of Congolese rebels loyal to warlord Bosco Ntaganda have fled into neighboring Rwanda or surrendered to United Nations peacekeepers after being routed by a rival faction, rebel and U.N. sources said on Saturday.
Ntaganda's apparent defeat comes after weeks of infighting within the M23 insurgency and could open the way for rival rebel leader Sultani Makenga to sign a peace deal with Kinshasa, bringing an end to a year-long rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rebel spokesman Vianney Kazarama said Makenga seized control of the town of Kibumba, 30 km (19 miles) north of Goma, capital of mineral-rich North Kivu province, early on Saturday.
Ntaganda and an estimated 200 fighters fled into the forest while hundreds of others crossed the border into Rwanda, Kazarama said. At least seven were killed.
"We're sweeping the area and placing our soldiers at strategic points," Kazarama said. "It is finished."
Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of killing civilians during a previous rebellion. His links to M23 have been a stumbling block to peace talks with Kinshasa, which says it wants him brought to justice.
"We're following the situation very closely. The only thing we want is for Ntaganda to be arrested," government spokesman Lambert Mende said.
Ntaganda's whereabouts could not be confirmed independently and members of his faction were not reachable by telephone.
FORCED TO FLEE
About 300 uniformed M23 rebels loyal to Ntaganda sat in a clearing littered with empty beer bottles in a small village in Rwanda's Rubavu District near the frontier, as locals in tattered clothes looked on.
Rwandan soldiers, who walked around nearby, had collected heaps of the rebels' weapons - AK-47 rifles, 60 mm mortar rounds and grenades - and laid them out in the front yard of a house.
"They were fighting us on all sides so we were forced to come to Rwanda. We know we have international rights here," said Prince Andema Makamo, who told Reuters he was a member of the M23 faction's political unit.
Ambulances ferried the wounded to a nearby medical clinic.
A Rwandan military official said more than 700 rebel fighters arrived in several Rwandan frontier villages through the night and into the morning, and more than 150 of them were being treated for wounds sustained in the fighting.
M23's former political head Jean-Marie Runiga, a Ntaganda loyalist ousted from the rebel hierarchy last month, was among those who fled to Rwanda.
"I came here because the situation has been getting worse on the ground in Congo. I preferred to save my life," he told Reuters at Rwanda's Nkamira refugee camp. "For the moment, I am here to find asylum."
Dozens of other M23 fighters, including senior officers, had handed themselves over to U.N. peacekeepers in recent days, according to a U.N. source, who asked not to be named.
"It's over for the Bosco and Runiga faction," he said.
The United Nations has accused Rwanda of backing armed uprisings in its vast and unstable neighbor to tackle extremist Rwandan rebels who operate there and to protect its economic interests. Rwanda dismisses the accusations.
In 2009, Kigali played a key role in ending the last major insurgency when it arrested its former ally and rebel leader Laurent Nkunda as part of a deal with Kinshasa.
That agreement saw Ntaganda integrated into the Congolese army as a general. It was Kinshasa's alleged failure to honor that deal that the rebels say sparked the M23 uprising.
M23 is one of many rebel groups operating in eastern Congo, which has been torn apart by nearly two decades of fighting over land, ethnicity and resources which has left millions dead.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg and Jenny Clover; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)