AFP - Rwandan troops began pulling out of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday after a controversial joint operation with Congolese troops against Rwandan Hutu rebels.
Rwandan military trucks crossed the border between the two nations just before 1200 GMT, while some 1,500 soldiers followed them on foot.
The retreat came after a ceremony in the eastern Nord-Kivu capital of Goma between Congolese and Rwandan officials who underscored their agreement to work for peace, following years of warfare and tensions.
The campaign "shows that Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo can construct a common future in peace and with respect of the sovereignty of each," Congolese Defence Minister Charles Mwando Nsimba said.
The neighbouring countries, which fought wars in 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, launched a surprise joint operation last month against the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
"The enemy is not completely destroyed but its operational capacities have been severely reduced," said the commander of the joint operation, General John Numbi.
Several thousand Rwandan troops participated in the offensive against the FDLR -- whose members include perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide against the minority Tutsis -- but the exact number has not been announced.
The campaign that started on January 20 was called "Umoja Vetu," or "Our Unity" in Swahili, and Numbi said Wednesday that 153 rebels had been killed, while the alliance lost eight men, then "about 5,000 FDLR" fighters were repatriated to Rwanda.
The number of Rwandan troops sent in to the DRC has never been given, and analysts said it was likely that some would stay deep in the Nord-Kivu province long at the heart of conflict in Africa's Great Lakes region on the country's eastern border.
Protest at Rwandan intervention was voiced in Kinshasa even by parliamentary speaker Vital Kamerhe, and two members of the lower house of the DRC's federal parliament resigned on Tuesday.
The FDLR at its height was estimated at 6,500 men.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Rosemary Museminali said the operation "offered a hope of peace and respect for sovereignty in the region," while DRC officials vowed to pursue the rebels to their last strongholds.
The most spectacular success was the capture inside Rwanda on January 22 of the head of a Congolese rebel force that has held sway over tracts of the north and south Kivu provinces, renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda.
Nkunda led the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and claimed to be protecting Kivu's minority Tutsis against the FDLR, but his force also battled the regular army and UN peacekeeping troops. In Kinshasa, he is wanted as a war criminal and Rwanda has promised to extradite him.
The CNDP has become a political party, which on Sunday signed the basis of a peace pact after most of its commanders abandoned Nkunda. The pact is due to be validated this week by mediators in the peace process in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Both the CNDP and the FDLR have taken hefty blows in the past months, but on Tuesday the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported "many attacks" on Nord-Kivu villages by the Rwandan rebels, "sparking a new wave of displacement."
UNCHR spokesman Ron Redmond reported about 3,000 newly displaced villagers in the Masisi region, when he said civilians were killed and women raped by FDLR fighters with firearms and knives.
In Kinshasa, the visiting chairman of the African Union commission, Jean Ping, welcomed the outcome of the operation and told a news briefing that the "solution adopted to tackle the crisis is close to that we envisaged."
"The results are globally positive," Ping said. "We believe that peace must come back to the Congo after 15 years of war, with a toll of five million dead."
Ping's figure was higher than many estimates, but successive conflicts have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives through starvation, lack of access to health care and infrastructure collapse.