GOMA, DR Congo – There are signs that Congolese rebels are withdrawing from the strategic eastern city of Goma, the United Nations said Tuesday, November 27, following a round of diplomatic efforts to prevent the conflict from spreading across the region, but Kinshasa met the pledge with caution.
The M23 rebels’ rebellion has displaced tens of thousands of people and its quick advance across the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has heightened fears of yet another major conflict in the war-blighted region.
Earlier Tuesday M23 military leader Sultani Makenga said his men would leave Goma “in three days at the latest” and pull back 20 kilometers (12 miles) under a deal struck in Kampala the previous day with an east African regional group.
The pullout deal was struck late Monday in the capital of neighboring Uganda between Makenga and regional military commanders, who will visit Goma on Friday to monitor progress of the promised withdrawal from the capital of the mineral-rich North Kivu region.
The rebels have begun transferring arms, provisions and medical supplies from Goma to the Rutshuru territory north of the city, an area along the Ugandan and Rwandan borders that has been their main stronghold since launching their uprising in April, Makenga said.
Uganda’s army chief Aronda Nyakairima told reporters there that the withdrawal would be complete by midday Thursday.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters in New York that the process of pulling the rebels out of the key city had apparently already begun.
“It seems that the advances have stopped,” he said.
“If anything there were signs tonight that they were either getting out of Goma or getting ready to do that.”
Ladsous said the withdrawal could only be confirmed by the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo on Wednesday.
M23 rebels took over Goma on Tuesday last week as they made a lightning advance through North Kivu.
Ladsous said the UN’s main military advisor, General Babacar Gaye, would head for DR Congo and other East African countries to work out details of the withdrawal deal.
He said this would include the working of a proposed neutral zone, who controls Goma airport, which is currently in the hands of the UN mission MONUSCO, and how to set up a proposed international neutral force for DR Congo.
The rebellion erupted in April when the M23, which UN experts have said is backed by neighboring Rwanda, broke away from the DR Congo army, complaining that a 2009 deal to end a previous conflict had not been fully implemented.
M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga had said earlier that the rebels would withdraw only if the Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila met a string of demands.
Monday’s agreement allows them to stay in their home region of Kivu, which is believed to hold up to three-quarters of the world’s reserves of coltan, a mineral used in the manufacture of many electronic products.
But the rebels’ grievances also delved into Kinshasa politics with a demand for the release of opposition standard-bearer Etienne Tshisekedi, a former prime minister who has been under unofficial house arrest since declaring victory in flawed elections last year that were officially won by Kabila.
The rebels are also demanding direct talks with the president and the dissolution of the electoral commission.
Ugandan army chief Aronda Nyakairima said Makenga had attached “no conditions” to the pullout but that the rebels were concerned about a backlash against civilians after their withdrawal.
In just a week, the rebels expanded their area of control from one small corner of North Kivu to cover almost the entire province, an area twice the size of Belgium.
The fighting, and reported atrocities including killings, rapes and abductions of civilians, has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in a spiraling humanitarian crisis.
Makenga was slapped with UN and US sanctions last week over the alleged atrocities.
Besides Goma, the rebels also seized Sake, a strategic town on the way to South Kivu province and its capital Bukavu.
The powder-keg region was the cradle of two wars that shook DR Congo between 1996 and 1997, and then again from 1998 to 2003, with Rwanda and Uganda playing active roles.
The wars, which included fighting in some of Africa’s remotest forests, have left a huge but unknown number of people dead.
The UN has issued a damning report accusing Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, of backing the rebels. Both countries deny the allegations. – Stephanie Aglietti, Agence France-Presse