DR Congo rebel leader calls on fighters to lay down arms

The leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo's M23 rebels on Sunday urged his fighters to lay down arms against army troops waging an offensive against them in the country's troubled east.

The call came with the rebels on the back foot as DR Congo troops pounded hilltop positions where die-hard fighters have holed up after being forced from their last stronghold this week.

"We order all the forces of the Congolese revolutionary army to immediately end hostilities with the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo," M23 president Bertrand Bisimwa said in a statement.

He said his aim was to "allow the continuation of the political process" with Kinshasa in a bid to end the insurgency rocking the long-troubled region since April 2012.

Bisimwa urged rebel chiefs to "ensure the strict observance of this order by elements under their command."

His order came in the midst of fierce fighting in the mountainous region bordering Uganda, where the army on Sunday launched a fresh offensive against some 200 rebels who fled to the hills after their base in the town of Bunagana was seized on Wednesday.

"Fighting is continuing," M23 spokesman Vianney Kazarama said shortly before the order to lay down arms.

"In any case it will be hard to pull us out of here. We are busy bombing (troops) who are making their way up the valleys."

The sound of heavy artillery could be heard from Kiwanja, a town around 20 kilometres (12 miles) away from the fighting as army troops launched their assault on Sunday.

"We are pounding Mbuzi," one of three mountains in eastern DR Congo where the rebels are hiding, General Lucien Bahuma told AFP by telephone earlier Sunday. "After the artillery we will send in the troops."

A DR Congo captain, speaking anonymously, said the army was "claiming back the hills. There is shooting in the mountains of Ntamugena, Mbuzi and Runyonyi. The rebels are fleeing."

The lush green hilly region has been rocked by heavy fighting for the past 10 days as army troops battle to stamp out the insurgency once and for all in the restive, mineral rich North Kivu province.

The clashes have forced thousands from their fields and homes, and aid agencies estimate some 10,000 refugees have streamed into Uganda.

'There was a lot of shooting'

In a muddy field barely a kilometre over the Ugandan border, hundreds of Congolese sheltered from the rain under plastic sheets.

Among them Noella Bigumashyaka, a 26-year-old teacher from the village of Jomba who fled for Uganda on Wednesday.

"I have two of my children with me, but I don't know what happened to the other two, they are only five and eight," she said weeping.

"There was a lot of shooting. We ran too quickly, abandoned our belongings along the road. We're dirty but we can't change our clothes."

For some it was not the first time they had to flee fighting in the notoriously unstable region which has seen two major wars in the past two decades fought over control of the former Belgian colony's mineral resources.

The M23 movement was founded by ethnic Tutsi former rebels who were incorporated into the Congolese army under a 2009 peace deal but then mutinied in April 2012, claiming that the pact had never been fully implemented.

At their strongest in November last year, M23 marched into Goma, a mining hub and city of one million people, and took control for 10 days, before regional leaders persuaded them into fresh peace talks.

But the stop-start talks fell apart last month when Kinshasa refused amnesty for about 80 rebel leaders and the DR Congo army -- backed by a special United Nations force -- went on the attack in a bid to end the rebellion.