M23 rebels began leaving the region they captured last week and will abide by an ultimatum issued by neighbouring nations to withdraw from Goma by Friday, their leader said Wednesday, in a sign that international pressure has slowed their advance.
Some 300 Congolese policemen arrived in the strategic rebel-held city of Goma on Friday ahead of an expected pullout by the insurgents, with the army vowing to enter the city the next day.
The M23 rebels, army mutineers who sparked international anger when they seized Goma last week in a lightning advance, have said they will withdraw 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the city, the main town in the Democratic Republic of Congo's mineral-rich east.
An AFP reporter saw more than 270 policemen out of an expected 450 land at Goma's port, having crossed Lake Kivu from government-controlled Bukavu some 100 kilometres south.
The policemen were due "to secure the city of Goma after the pullout of M23 rebels," said Mondje Nounoubai, a spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force in the country.
DR Congo's army, which fled in disarray when the rebels seized Goma and surrounding settlements in the chronically volatile region, will enter the city on Saturday, said army chief General François Olenga.
"We will deploy our units tomorrow," Olenga told AFP. "A battalion will be posted in the city and a company will be posted at the airport."
Senior officers from the 11-nation International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), which struck the pullout deal this week in Uganda, are also travelling to Goma to monitor the withdrawal.
The M23 will leave a company of 100 fighters at the airport, and neighbouring Tanzania is also expected to send a company of soldiers to the airport under the ICGLR deal.
But a dispute over ammunition and equipment left by government forces threatened to delay Friday's handover, when the rebels insisted on taking the material with them. The military supplies, abandoned by the FARDC government army, were in the charge of UN peacekeepers at Goma airport.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) was refusing to hand over the airport arsenal to the rebels. “This is FARDC ammunition and does not belong to M23 so I don’t think we have to hand it over,” MONUSCO’s spokesman in Kinshasa, Madnodje Mounoubai, told Reuters news agency.
M23 military chief Colonel Sultani Makenga accused the UN peacekeepers of “blocking” M23’s withdrawal operations. “We have a store that has our logistical equipment and now MONUSCO is telling us not to get our equipment. We can’t agree to that,” he told reporters in Sake, west of Goma.
The rebels' 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 drew in much of the region from 1996 to 2003. The region 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 the M23, a charge both countries deny.
The M23 was founded by former fighters in a Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 2009 peace deal they claim was never fully implemented.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2012-11-30