GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congo's M23 rebels said Wednesday they will withdraw from the strategic city of Goma if President Joseph Kabila's government meets their demands for wide-ranging national reforms and negotiations.
"Kabila has to meet our demands if we are to pull out," said M23 vice-minister of interior Theophile Ruremesha to The Associated Press Wednesday.
"The African Union and the ICGLR (a bloc of neighboring countries) asked us to withdraw from Goma. We are ready, we respect diplomacy," said Ruremesha. "But we realize that Kabila is not seriously considering meeting our demands. If we see that there is a will to answer our demands, we can make concessions."
The regional groups demanded that the M23 leave Goma by Friday but Ruremesha suggested that the withdrawal could take longer.
"For humanitarian reasons we cannot leave the town in the hands of just anybody," he said. "Creating the neutral force will take some time."
M23's military chief, Col. Sultani Makenga, also said that the rebels intend to pull out of Goma. Makenga returned from talks in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
"We have started to withdraw our forces from Masisi (a small town northwest of Goma) and we will then withdraw from Goma as we agreed in Kampala," Makenga told AP on Wednesday.
When asked if the M23 troops would be out of Goma by Friday, Makenga said: "It will depend on our troops' movement, but we have started to do what we agreed to in Kampala."
A pull-out from Goma is a reversal from the statement by the M23's political chief Tuesday that the rebels would fight the government army to retain control of Goma.
Goma's population remained confused about whether the M23 would withdraw or not by Friday and many people expressed anxiety about a possible attack by the Congo army.
"This is a nerve-wracking situation. It fluctuates every hour and we cannot even plan for tomorrow," said Goma resident Ernest Mugisho. "The M23 needs to give a clear message because for us, the population, this is not good."
Whether the M23 stay or leave Goma, the rebel group has a large new cache of 1,000 tons of weapons, including heavy artillery, that were abandoned by the fleeing Congo army last week, according to M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga.
It appears the M23 are moving the weapons north of Goma. Six flatbed trucks carrying crates of ammunition were seen Tuesday being driven by M23 soldiers north from Goma.
The M23 was created nearly eight months ago by former rebels who joined, and then defected from the Congolese army. They have been accused of human rights abuses, including executions and forced recruitment of children.
Both the M23 and the FDLR rebel groups have their origins in the scars left by Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The perpetrators of that genocide were from the Hutu ethnic group, and 18 years ago, at the end of the 100-day massacre they fled across the border and took refuge in the jungles of eastern Congo. Their leaders regrouped under the banner of the FDLR, and have used Congo as a base to try to take back Rwanda. Numerous reports indicate that the FDLR was tacitly backed by Congo, which wanted to use them as a buffer against Rwanda.
By contrast the M23 are fighters who are mainly from the Tutsi ethnic group that was targeted for extermination during the genocide.