GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - A reluctance of some rank and file fighters in Congo’s M23 rebel movement to withdraw from the eastern border city of Goma is complicating a deal their commanders agreed with regional governments, a rebel spokesman said on Friday.
A rebel pullback from Goma, seized by M23 from fleeing United Nations-backed government forces on November 20, would signal some progress in international efforts to halt the eight-month-old insurgency in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Goma is an important hub in Congo’s eastern borderlands which have suffered years of recurring conflict stoked by long-standing ethnic and political enmities and fighting over the region’s rich resources of gold, tin, tungsten and coltan. The latter is a precious metal used to make mobile phones.
Rebel leaders, who have declared their intention to fight to topple President Joseph Kabila, said earlier this week they would vacate Goma and other captured positions west and south of the North Kivu provincial capital.
This was in line with a deal announced last weekend by heads of states of the Great Lakes region, which includes Congo.
In rebel-held Sake, 30 km (18 miles) west of Goma, M23 soldiers were coming down from the hills on Friday in anticipation of a planned withdrawal later in the day.
In Goma itself, groups of camouflage-clad M23 fighters could still be seen, standing around street corners or brandishing their weapons from the back of pick-up trucks.
M23 deputy spokesman Amani Kabasha told Reuters some of the group’s young combatants did not understand why they had to surrender a city captured after their offensive in the lush green hills that straddle the Congo-Rwanda border.
“We took this town by blood so it is not easy to convince them to leave. They do not understand it,” Kabasha said.
Rebel spokesmen had said the withdrawal from Goma, due to be supervised by defense chiefs from neighboring countries, would take place on Friday but there were indications it would take longer to complete.
“M23 is going,” one of the foreign military observers, Ugandan General Geoffrey Muheesi, told reporters. But he said the rebel pullback could take until Saturday morning.
“We are being told to pull out and we are pulling out,” Kabasha said. M23 fighters have been carrying off large amounts of weapons and munitions abandoned by the government army.
In a sign that Congolese authorities intended to reassert their control over Goma after the rebel withdrawal, 300 policemen arrived by ferry at Goma’s port on Lake Kivu on Friday and then fanned out around the city. Some of them were armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, a Reuters photographer said.
“CREDIBLE REPORTS” OF RWANDAN INVOLVEMENT
U.N. experts and Congo have accused the government and military of neighboring Rwanda of supporting, supplying and directing the M23 rebellion, a charge furiously denied by Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
But in the face of the evidence supplied by the U.N. experts, the Rwandan denials have not convinced Western donors, a number of whom have frozen aid to Kigali.
In the latest move, Britain said on Friday it was withholding 21 million pounds ($33.68 million) of budget support to Rwanda. It has been Rwanda’s biggest bilateral aid donor.
“The (British) government has already set out its concerns over credible and compelling reports of Rwandan involvement with M23 in DRC,” British International Development Secretary Justine Greening said in a statement.
She said London would work with Congo and Rwanda for a lasting solution to the latest conflict in the war-scarred eastern Congo region, which has displaced thousands of civilians, creating a fresh humanitarian crisis.
President Kabila, who faces resistance from within his own military to a peace with the rebels, has said he is ready to listen to the insurgents’ grievances, if they leave Goma.
But M23’s Kabasha expressed skepticism about the president’s offer. “But what about Kabila? He has said he won’t negotiate and the (M23) soldiers hear this on the radio and wonder why they must leave,” he said.
The rebels said initially they took up arms over what they cited as the government’s failure to respect a March 23, 2009, peace agreement that envisaged their integration into the army.
They have since broadened the scope of their movement, declaring their aim to “liberate” the entire, giant Central African nation and oust Kabila.
On Thursday, Congo’s new head of land forces, Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga, said only war could end the rebellion in the east by the Tutsi-led insurgents.
His comments indicated that some senior Congolese commanders would prefer to see a military solution against the rebels, a position which could further impede peace efforts.
Humanitarian agencies say more than 5 million people have died from conflict, hunger or disease in Congo since 1998.
Rwanda has twice invaded its western neighbor Congo over the past two decades, at one point sparking a conflict dubbed “Africa’s World War” that drew in several countries.
It has justified its interventions by arguing it was forced to act against hostile Rwandan Hutu fighters who fled to Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed by Hutu soldiers and militia.
Additional reporting by Kenny Butunka in Goma and Richard Lough in Nairobi; Writing by Ed Stoddard and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Mark Heinrich