, GOMA, DR Congo, Nov 29 – Rebel fighters in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo said 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 (12 miles) 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.