GOMA/MINOVA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - A Congolese government army commander said on Thursday only war could end a rebellion in the east by Tutsi-led insurgents as the rebels prepared to withdraw from the border city of Goma under a deal brokered by Uganda.
The comments from Congo’s newly-appointed head of land forces Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga Tete appeared to fly in the face of international efforts to settle the conflict, and reflected anger in the army’s officer corps at the prospect of any negotiation with the insurgents.
M23 rebels opposed to President Joseph Kabila seized Goma, provincial capital of Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern North Kivu province on November 20, after routing United Nations-backed government forces.
Rebel leaders have said they will quit the steamy lakeside city on the border with Rwanda in line with a deal announced at the weekend by presidents of Great Lakes states who fear the rebellion in Congo could escalate into wider conflict.
At Minova, a town held by the government army FARDC south of Goma, Olenga Tete said government troops were preparing to re-enter Goma after the rebels left it.
“I am going back to Kinshasa to prepare for war. I‘m going to ask our leaders for permission to wage war. We don’t want more negotiations. It’s war that will bring peace to Congo,” he said, as government soldiers mustered under a blazing sun.
Congo’s ill-disciplined and demoralized army have suffered a succession of embarrassing defeats at the hands of M23 and many officers are appalled at any thought of a deal.
One rebel spokesman had said the withdrawal from Goma would take place on Friday, but another said it could take longer.
Defense officials from neighboring countries were due to travel to Goma to verify the planned pullback of the insurgents from positions in and around the city.
Congo’s eastern borderlands have suffered years of recurring conflict stoked by long-standing ethnic and political enmities and fighting over the area’s rich resources of gold, tin, tungsten and coltan, which is used to make mobile phones.
By late morning, lines of FARDC soldiers carrying weapons and ammunition were advancing north from Minova on the road to Goma, approaching to within a few kilometers of M23 positions. U.N. peacekeepers held ground between the two opposing forces.
At an army barracks in Goma, M23 deputy spokesman Amani Kabasha told Reuters the rebels planned to leave the city but he could not confirm this would be completed on Friday. “We have lots of ammunition we need to pull out,” he told Reuters as soldiers loaded cases of bullets onto a truck.
On the streets of the provincial city, the hub of a region racked by years of fighting, rapes and looting by rebels, militias and government troops, stoic residents expressed mixed feelings about the announced M23 withdrawal.
“I hope they leave because when they come here they kill someone every time,” said John Bizamu, 29, who like many residents is unemployed.
But others expressed concern about government forces taking control of the city again.
Heritier Nzaisenga, 21 and also jobless, said the M23 rebels had maintained some order in the city.
“With the M23 militia here there are no bandits and we can walk at night. When they were not here there were many bandits,” he said as he stood outside a building housing the international charity Oxfam.
A rebel pullout from Goma would signal progress in efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the eastern crisis, although the rebels - who U.N. experts say are backed by neighboring Rwanda - have given no indication they were ending their eight-month insurgency. Rwanda vehemently denies backing the rebellion.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington on Wednesday withdrawal was the only option for the rebels.
M23 military chief Colonel Sultani Makenga had said rebel forces would withdraw about 20 km (12 miles) from Goma, leaving 100 soldiers at the airport and allowing government troops to return to the city, as set out under the terms of the deal.
In a bid to end the eastern insurgency, Congolese President Kabila has agreed to listen to M23’s grievances.
But Congo Information Minister Lambert Mende said on Wednesday he remained skeptical that the rebels would leave the city.
In Goma’s decrepit port on Lake Kivu, a group of young men loaded mortar and artillery shells from rusty containers onto a beat-up lorry under the supervision of two M23 rebels in camouflage fatigues.
Nearby sandbags were stacked in a makeshift defensive position but only one rebel fighter manned it as goats scratched around the dying embers of a cooking fire.
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 saw them integrated into the army.
They have since broadened the scope of their movement, declaring their aim to “liberate” the entire Central African nation and topple President Kabila.
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.
At the United Nations, a Congolese envoy on Wednesday accused Rwanda of supporting the rebellion to prevent the arrest of former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court. Rwanda dismissed the accusation as ”far-fetched.
Life-long Goma resident Muhima Rudori was not confident the rebel pullout would lead to lasting peace.
“Nothing is going to change when they leave,” he said as motorcycles roared up a dusty street.
Writing by Ed Stoddard and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Andrew Heavens