GOMA, DR Congo — Congolese rebels said
Thursday they were moving out of frontline positions in the
resource-rich east, but the United Nations said there was still
no major sign they were leaving the key city of Goma.
Fighters from the M23 rebels -- army mutineers
whose uprising has sown fears of wider conflict and humanitarian
crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile east --
were seen trucking equipment from frontline areas they had
seized beyond Goma.
M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha told AFP the group
would hand over the small but strategic frontline town of Sake
on Friday to UN peacekeepers and regional officials, with the
withdrawal from Goma, the lakeside capital of North Kivu
province, following later.
Control of Goma -- some 30 kilometres (19
miles) east of Sake -- would be passed to the UN later the same
day or "maybe the day after", he said.
"It is a process," he added.
But there was little sign of a major troop
pullout on Thursday, and the UN said its mission in DR Congo
would start aerial reconnaissance to monitor rebel positions.
"Reports indicate movements of small groups of
M23 troops in and out of Goma but the mission has not yet been
able to ascertain whether there is a net reduction of M23 troops
in the city," said deputy UN spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
Ugandan army chief Aronda Nyakairima, who
helped broker a deal with the M23 to leave Goma, said the
reports he had indicated the rebels "are withdrawing and will
The rebels have missed earlier deadlines to
pull out of Goma and its surroundings after a lightning advance
last week, but they claim now to be committed to the staggered
Residents reported seeing dozens of trucks
carrying food and ammunition trundling through the lush green
and rolling hills on the shores of Lake Kivu toward Goma,
pulling back past the wreckage of last week's fighting.
But numbers of actual troops so far have been
low, according to Goma residents on the road west out of the
city, on which rebels would be expected to travel.
"Since yesterday I have seen some
soldiers returning -- around 50 -- some in vehicles and some on
motorbikes," said local official Marcel Kadede, sitting in his
wooden shack, where a photograph of President Joseph Kabila
-- 'An undisciplined army' --
M23 commander Sultani Makenga reportedly
commands some 1,500 fighters, according to a Western military
source. He was hit with UN and United States sanctions last
month over alleged killings, rapes and abductions committed by
Makenga has said he will withdraw just 20
kilometres from Goma, the main settlement in the flashpoint Kivu
region that abuts both Rwanda and Uganda.
Decades of conflicts between multiple militia
forces -- as well as meddling by regional armies -- have ravaged
the region, which holds vast mineral wealth, including copper,
diamonds, gold and key mobile phone component coltan.
UN experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda --
who played active roles in back-to-back wars in DR Congo from
1996 to 2003 -- of supporting the M23, a charge both countries
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has
called on the region's leaders to stop backing the rebels.
But civilians, many of whom have had to flee
repeated rounds of fighting over several years, are suffering.
Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the newly displaced,
some 285,000 people having abandoned their homes since the
rebels began their uprising in April.
"The humanitarian impact of this conflict in
the eastern part of the country is devastating," Clinton said.
Rights groups and UN officials have accused
the rebels of atrocities, and the government has ruled out any
peace talks until the M23 quit Goma.
But residents in Goma appeared more concerned
at what would happen when the Congolese army returned.
"They are an undisciplined army, they
have done nothing to protect us," said Dunia, an electrician.
The rebels warned the army not to attack
civilians after its withdrawal, and denied carrying out killings
on its arrival in Goma.
"The M23 will not tolerate the slightest abuse
against the innocent people in the territory handed over to the
international community," the group said in a statement.
Locals have told AFP both the M23 and the army
are guilty of abuses.
The instability in DR Congo's east has been
exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1999 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.
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