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Thu Nov 27 12:33:08 SAST 2014

DRC M23 rebels begin moving out of front-line positions

Sapa-AFP | 29 November, 2012 13:22
A M23 rebel fighter holds his RPG as they prepare for withdrawal from Karuba, some 62 km west of Goma.
Image by: GORAN TOMASEVIC / REUTERS

Rebel fighters in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo Say they were moving out of frontline positions in the resource-rich region.

Fighters from the M23 rebels were seen trucking equipment from frontline areas they'd seized beyond the lakeside city of Goma, including a small town called Sake at a junction for a key road south. But there was no major troop pullout seen as of Thursday morning.

From Sake, frontline rebels are expected to withdraw to Goma itself, before the fighting force moves out of the city en masse and heads north.

"We have gathered our troops and will move towards Sake," said M23 Colonel Antoine Manzi, a senior commander of the army mutineers.

The rebels have missed earlier deadlines to withdraw from Goma and its surroundings after last week's lightning push that drew international ire, but claim now to be committed to start a pullout by Friday.

"We will start leaving Goma tomorrow... we cannot leave Goma before we have left the other areas," Manzi told AFP on Thursday, adding that he expected the M23 would hand over control to United Nations peacekeepers there.

Residents have reported seeing dozens of trucks carrying food and ammunition trundling through the lush green and rolling hills on the shores of Lake Kivu towards Goma, pulling back past the wreckage of last week's fighting.

But numbers of actual troops have been low, according to residents working 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 chef Marcel Kadede, sitting in a wooden shack where a photograph of DR Congo President Joseph Kabila proudly hung.

Telephone credit seller Riban Amani said three pickup trucks loaded with rebels returning to Goma had passed his roadside stall on Wednesday, but so far on Thursday "there has been nothing."

Uganda's army chief Aronda Nyakairima said earlier this week a deal had been struck with the rebels to pull out of Goma by midday Thursday, although M23 military leader Sultani Makenga said the deadline was Friday.

Under the deal struck in Uganda between rebels and regional military commanders -- who are due to visit Goma on Friday to monitor progress of the promised withdrawal -- a company of 100 gunmen from M23 will stay at Goma's airport.

Rebels seized fleeing army gear

Makenga, hit with UN and United States sanctions last month for alleged atrocities including killings, rapes and abductions, reportedly commands some 1,500 fighters, according to a Western military source.

But the rebels are understood to have beefed up their strength with heavy artillery seized when the Congolese army fled, and Makenga has said he will withdraw just 20 kilometres from the city, the main settlement in the flashpoint Kivu region and which abuts both Rwanda and Uganda.

Decades of civil war 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 the key mobile phone component coltan.

UN experts have previously accused Rwanda and Uganda - who played active roles in back-to-back conflicts in DR Congo from 1996 to 2003 - of supporting the M23, a charge both countries deny.

A French-drafted resolution at the UN Security Council on Wednesday said it would consider sanctions against more M23 rebel leaders and those "providing external support," though it id not name any specific country.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also made tough comments on the crisis, calling on the region's leaders to withdraw backing for the rebels.

Civilians, many of whom have had to flee repeated rounds of fighting over several years, are suffering as aid agencies struggle to cope with newly displaced, with some 285,000 people abandoning 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, after talks with African Union chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Rights groups and UN officials have accused the rebels of killing, raping and abducting civilians, and the government has ruled out any peace talks until the M23 quit Goma.

The M23 was founded by former fighters in an ethnic-Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 2009 peace deal which they claim was never fully implemented.

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