KANYABAYONGA, Congo (Reuters) - Hundreds of Congolese rebel fighters pulled back on Wednesday from frontline positions in a move U.N. peacekeepers hoped would open the way for talks on ending weeks of conflict in east Congo.
U.N. foot and air patrols were monitoring the withdrawal of renegade General Laurent Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels from positions they had occupied after a rapid advance northwards in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern North Kivu province.
The pullback raised hopes for a lull in almost daily clashes between the rebels, the government army and local militias which have raged for weeks, driving hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes and creating a humanitarian emergency in the heart of Africa.
“Since yesterday evening they (the rebels) have been withdrawing. They are pulling back south on three axes, from Kanyabayonga toward Kibirizi, from Kanyabayonga toward Nyanzale and from Rwindi south,” U.N. military spokesman Lt.-Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich told Reuters.
“Definitely, this is a good thing,” Dietrich said. He estimated the withdrawing rebels “in the hundreds.”
Witnesses traveling on the main north-south road through North Kivu on Wednesday said the rebels had moved their positions 33 km (20 miles) south away from Kanyabayonga.
Nkunda, who demands direct talks on Congo’s future with President Joseph Kabila, ordered the pullback after meeting at the weekend with U.N. peace envoy former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. He pledged to respect a shaky ceasefire and take part in U.N.-backed peace negotiations.
The rebels pulled back south from territory they had taken, routing demoralized government troops, more than 100 km (60 miles) north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
But they still held strategic positions just 15 km (nine miles) north of Goma, near Kibati, facing government troops.
Aid workers have been providing food and medical help to more than 200,000 displaced civilians at Kibati and around Goma and are trying to reach hundreds of thousands more cut off by the fighting in the hills and forests of North Kivu.
The U.N. Security Council plans to vote on a French-drafted resolution on Thursday that would boost the number of peacekeepers, known by its French acronym MONUC, from 17,000 to more than 20,000.
“We accept the idea that MONUC should be more efficient on the ground,” France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said on Wednesday. “They should use their full capacities. And we have to make sure that their capacities are adapted to the kind of threat and the kind of challenges they have to face.”
The North Kivu fighting has again focused world attention on Congo, one of the world’s most violent countries, where more than 5 million people have been killed by conflict, hunger and disease since 1998. A five-year war that started then sucked in six African armies until peace was signed in 2003.
Western governments which backed a 2006 election that returned President Kabila to office are anxious that Congo with its vast resources of copper, cobalt, coltan, gold, diamonds and other riches should not be allowed to plunge back into chaos.
British Foreign Office Minister Mark Malloch-Brown, who visited refugees around Goma on Wednesday, said Britain was committed to finding a solution to what he called “this long, bitter, ugly, violent dispute in the Kivus.” He pledged support for Obasanjo’s peace efforts and a strengthened U.N. force.
Malloch-Brown told reporters the conflict was “rooted” in the presence in east Congo of Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels, who include perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide of Tutsis and whose presence Nkunda invokes to justify his rival Tutsi revolt.
He said the feuding factions had gained a “mafia-like character” because of their control of local mineral assets.
“Not just Rwanda but all the neighbors have to make sure that they are not supporting this criminal political economy by being the exit routes for minerals,” Malloch-Brown said.
European Union lawmakers called for safeguards to stop Congo’s natural resources being used to finance armed conflict.
“We also have to address the root causes ... find a solution to the pillaging of resources in the region,” French Secretary of State for European Affairs Jean-Pierre Jouyet said.
At Kirumba, near Kanyabayonga town which is the road gateway northwards through North Kivu, government soldiers were recovering from fighting on Tuesday with their own militia allies, who had tried to make them stand and resist the rebels.
Congolese government soldiers joked around the charred corpses of two Mai-Mai militia fighters, one with an umbrella skewered into his face. The Mai-Mai often fight with spears.
“We killed them because they attacked us with sharp weapons, and we burned them because they’re Mai-Mai,” one soldier said.
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Additional reporting by David Lewis in Kinshasa, Hereward Holland in Goma and Ingrid Melander in Brussels; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Matthew Jones