DR Congo rebels start pullout of frontline positions
GOMA: Rebel fighters in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo said on Thursday they were moving out of frontline positions, in line with a deal aimed at halting the deadly unrest in the volatile resource-rich area.
The M23 rebels could be seen pulling back equipment from the areas that they seized last week in a lightning advance that prompted international condemnation and calls for withdrawal.
“We have gathered our troops and will move towards Sake,” said M23 Colonel Antoine Manzi, a senior commander of the army mutineers, referring to a town some 20 kilometres west of the key regional capital of Goma, which the insurgents have agreed to leave by Friday.
“We will start leaving Goma tomorrow. We cannot leave Goma before we have left the other areas,” he told AFP Thursday, adding that he expected the M23 would hand over control to United Nations peacekeepers there.
Residents have reported seeing dozens of trucks carrying food and ammunition trundling through the lush green and rolling hills on the shores of Lake Kivu towards Goma, pulling back past the wreckage of last week’s fighting.
Uganda’s army chief Aronda Nyakairima said earlier this week a deal had been struck with the rebels to pull out of the lakeshore city by Thursday, although M23 military leader Sultani Makenga said the deadline was Friday.
Under the deal struck in Uganda between rebels and regional military commanders – who are due to visit Goma on Friday to monitor progress of the promised withdrawal – a company of 100 M23 gunmen will stay at Goma’s airport.
Makenga, slapped with United Nations and United States sanctions last month for alleged atrocities including killings, rapes and abductions, reportedly commands some 1,500 fighters, according to a Western military source.
But the rebels are understood to have also beefed up their strength with heavy artillery seized when the Congolese army fled their advance.
Although no major moves have been reported yet out of Goma, Makenga has said he will withdraw just 20 kilometres from the city, the main settlement in the flashpoint Kivu region, which abuts both Rwanda and Uganda.
Decades of civil war between multiple militia forces – as well as meddling by regional armies – have ravaged the region, which holds vast mineral wealth, including copper, diamonds, gold and the key mobile phone component coltan.
UN experts have previously fingered both Rwanda and Uganda – who played active roles in back-to-back conflicts in DR Congo from 1996 to 2003 – of supporting the M23, a charge both countries deny.
A French-drafted resolution at the UN Security Council on Wednesday said it would consider sanctions against more M23 rebel leaders and those “providing external support,” though it id not name any specific country.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also made tough comments on the crisis, calling on the region’s leaders to withdraw backing for the rebels.
Civilians, many of whom have had to flee repeated rounds of fighting over several years, are suffering as aid agencies struggle to cope with newly displaced, with some 285,000 people abandoning their homes since the rebels began their uprising in April.
Many are in “critical need,” Clinton said, as she called “on leaders and governments from throughout the region to halt and prevent any support to the M23 from their territory.”
Last week’s advance by the M23 raised fears of a wider conflict and a new humanitarian crisis erupting in the unstable region.
“The humanitarian impact of this conflict in the eastern part of the country is devastating,” Clinton said, after talks with African Union chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Rights groups and UN officials have accused the rebels of killing, raping and abducting civilians, with the Red Cross collecting 62 bodies of civilians killed in Goma in the days after its capture.
The organisation reported civilians and combatants were criss-crossing the region in search of shelter, food and medicine.
DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende charged that the rebels had plundered buildings in Goma “from top to bottom”, and the government has ruled out any peace talks until the M23 quit Goma.
The M23 was founded by former fighters in an ethnic-Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 2009 peace deal which they claim was never fully implemented.