GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels who last week seized Goma, one of the most important cities in eastern Congo, said they had pulled back slightly and were on track to leave the city by Friday, in accordance with a deadline imposed by the international community.
The apparent withdrawal of the M23 rebels indicates that international pressure may have succeeded in reversing the rebel advance and staved off what could have been the start of a new war between the enormous, jungle-covered nation of Congo and its much smaller and more affluent neighbor, Rwanda. The M23 rebels are widely believed to be financially and militarily backed by Rwanda, which is accused of using rebel groups to gain access to the mines that dot eastern Congo.
Rebel spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama told The Associated Press on Thursday that his soldiers had already pulled back to Sake, 27 kilometers (18 miles) beyond Goma.
"We are withdrawing," he said, adding they will be on track to leave Goma as asked.
In the nearby Congo village of Mushaki, a handful of M23 soldiers were still patrolling the town Thursday afternoon, but their reduced numbers suggested that a drawdown had occurred. In Sake, reporters saw several dozen rebels loading bags of food, appearing to be getting ready to leave. The Congolese military, meanwhile, was regrouping in the town of Minova, 60 kilometers (40 miles) south of Goma.
Large numbers of Congolese soldiers gathered for a pep talk in Minova's stadium on Thursday, preparing for an offensive if the rebels refused to leave.
Despite the assurances by rebel leaders, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was unclear if the rebels will fully withdraw from Goma, the main trading and shipping point for the gold and tin carved out of North Kivu's mineral-rich soil.
"We do see some movement of M23 troops, but we can't tell whether this is preparatory to a withdrawal or whether it's just sort of a redeployment," she said in Washington.
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Goma, Hiroute Guebre-Selassie, said if all goes as planned, the rebels will hand over power to local police on Friday.
Guebre-Selassie said 900 of the 3,000 Congolese policemen in the city had surrendered to M23 "under duress" and the city has seen much looting in the past two days.
Congo has agreed to negotiate with the rebels and hear their grievances once they have retreated 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city.
The M23 rebels are part of a now-defunct rebel group that agreed to disarm on March 23, 2009, in return for being integrated into the national army.
But their integration proved problematic from the start, with the ex-rebels simply changing their uniforms. They continued controlling key mines and imposing taxes on the trucks and porters leaving the pits. Congo's government simply looked the other way until earlier this year, when it attempted to relocate the battalions of ex-rebels, apparently to disrupt their smuggling operations.
Hundreds of soldiers defected from the army in April, launching the M23 rebellion. The U.N. says the fighters are receiving sophisticated equipment as well as new recruits from Rwanda.
"With regard to the M23 rebel group, there is only one way forward: they must meet their commitments under the Kampala accords to cease their attacks, withdraw from Goma and pull back to the July lines," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Wednesday in Washington after a meeting with the chairwoman of the African Union. "We call on leaders and governments from throughout the region to halt and prevent any support to the M23 from their territory."
Asked why Rwanda was not being called out publicly, African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma sidestepped the issue.
"Our approach to this matter is that it doesn't help us to finger-point, we just need a solution," she said.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay in Goma, Congo, and Matthew Lee in Washington also contributed to this report.