KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda began sending home more than 1,000 fighters of a rebel group from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Tuesday after Kinshasa pressured it to return them to prevent them regrouping to fight again.
Some 1,430 fighters are believed to have fled into Uganda after Congolese and U.N. forces quashed their rebellion in eastern DRC in 2013. Most live in military-run camps awaiting amnesties promised under a peace deal.
Kinshasa has been pressing Uganda and Rwanda to repatriate the fighters, fearing they could start another rebellion in its troubled eastern region.
Congo has come under international pressure to speed up implementing the peace deal, which grants an amnesty for former rebels who promise not to take part in any future insurrections. It does not apply to those wanted for war crimes.
"The first batch of 120 fighters from those willing to go back home will be flying out today," said Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the Ugandan military.
Ankunda said several fighters had refused to return home and escaped from a military encampment in western Uganda to a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp in the same region.
"We can't force anyone to go back home, so for those who have escaped, they're now the responsibility of the U.N.," he said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Lucy Beck said any ex-M23 fighters arriving at the U.N. camp would be handed over to a government representative, adding that as ex-combatants they could not be considered for refugee status.
The M23 leadership denounced what it called a "forced repatriation" in a letter to Angolan President Edouardo Dos Santos, current head of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a group of African heads of state which brokered the peace deal between DRC and the rebels.
"We were surprised by the decision of the DRC government to proceed with their forced repatriation in violation of its own commitments and the rules of international law," Bertrand Bisimwa, chairman of the M23 Movement, said in the letter.
There was no immediate comment from the Great Lakes group.
U.N. experts accused Uganda and Rwanda of supporting M23 with troops, arms and intelligence during the 2012-13 conflict, but both countries denied any involvement.
In a report released in June, the experts said M23 members were escaping from camps in Rwanda and said there was evidence they were regrouping in Uganda.
Editing by James Macharia and Gareth Jones