, GOMA, RDC, Dec 1 – Rebels in the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of Congo began withdrawing Saturday from the mining hub of Goma, the city they seized on November 20, sparking fears of a broader conflict in the war-weary region.
Around 300 rebels, army mutineers who seized Goma in a lightning advance, drove out of the city in a convoy of looted trucks headed north, singing as they left.
The M23 rebels have pledged to withdraw 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside the city under a regionally brokered deal.
Their campaign has raised fears of a humanitarian catastrophe and wider conflict erupting from DR Congo’s east, the cradle of back-to-back wars that shook the country and embroiled other nations in the region from 1996 to 2003.
“We are happy that they are leaving, they have made us suffer,” said 25-year-old Goma resident who gave her name only as Parfait, standing by the roadside watching the convoy rumble past.
“They have stolen so much, vehicles, ammunition, everything,” she said, waving at the line of vehicles crowded with gunmen.
M23 commander Sultani Makenga, who was with the convoy pulling out, said he was obeying a deal struck with regional army chiefs under which they will cede control of Goma to UN peacekeepers.
“We will accept what they asked us,” he said. “There’s no problem.”
However the deal calls for the rebels to leave 100 men at Goma’s airport alongside government troops and UN peacekeepers as well as soldiers from neighbouring Tanzania.
Makenga, who was hit with UN and US sanctions last month over alleged killings, rapes and abductions committed by his men, leads some 1,500 fighters, according to a Western military source.
Also Saturday, rebels who had manned the Great Barrier border post, a key crossing point into neighbouring Rwanda, handed over their positions to DR Congo police.
Hundreds of M23 fighters left frontline positions around Sake, some 30 kilometres west of Goma, on Friday, trekking down from steep hillside positions carrying packs and crates of ammunition.
Rebels are reported to have seized heavy weaponry and ammunition abandoned by the army, which fled in disarray when the fighters seized Goma and surrounding settlements in the chronically volatile region.
“The government is our main supplier,” laughed M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha, speaking from the departing convoy.
“This car too is one of Kabila’s,” he added, slapping the side of a new four-wheel drive vehicle, referring to DR Congo’s President Joseph Kabila.
However, they were blocked from entering the airport by UN peacekeepers, with regional officials monitoring the pullout saying the rebels had wanted to seize military hardware abandoned by the Congolese army there.
Residents have reported seeing dozens of rebel trucks carrying food and ammunition through the lush green hills on the shores of Lake Kivu toward Goma.
— 285,000 people have fled homes since April —
Under the pullout deal struck in neighbouring Uganda with army chiefs from the 11-nation International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), senior officers from the regional bloc are monitoring the withdrawal.
More than 270 Congolese policemen will be tasked with Goma’s security after the rebel pullout, UN spokesman Mounoubai said.
DR Congo’s army chief General Francois Olenga told AFP that a battalion of government troops would also be posted in the city of about a million inhabitants, as well as a company at the airport.
M23 was founded by former fighters in a Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 2009 peace deal that they claim was never fully implemented.
Decades of conflict between multiple militia forces — as well as meddling by regional armies — have ravaged Congo’s east, which holds vast mineral wealth including copper, diamonds, gold and key mobile phone component coltan.
UN experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda — which played active roles in DR Congo’s 1996-2003 wars — of supporting M23, a charge both countries deny.
Britain on Friday froze $33.7 million (25.9 million euros) in aid to Rwanda following “credible and compelling reports of Rwandan involvement with M23,” International Development Secretary Justine Greening said, a move condemned by Kigali.
Tens of thousands of civilians in DR Congo have had to flee repeated rounds of fighting over several years in the region.
Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the newly displaced, with some 285,000 people having fled their homes since the rebels began their uprising in April.
The instability in DR Congo’s east was exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when Hutus implicated in the killing of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi victims fled across the Congolese border after Tutsi leader Paul Kagame came to power.
In peaceful times, Goma is the starting point for visits to nearby Virunga National Park to view endangered mountain gorillas.