GOMA, Congo -- Rebels, who last week seized one of the most important cities in eastern Congo and advanced beyond, said Thursday that they had pulled back several miles to the town of Sake and were on track to leave the key city of Goma by Friday, in accordance with a deadline imposed by the international community.
The apparent withdrawal of the M23 rebels indicates that international pressure may have succeeded in reversing the rebel advance and staved off what many had feared could be the start of a new war between the enormous, jungle-covered nation of Congo, and its much smaller and more affluent neighbor, Rwanda. The M23 rebels are widely believed to be financially and militarily backed by the landlocked nation of Rwanda, which is accused of using rebel groups to gain access to the mines that dot the landscape in eastern Congo.
Rebel spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama told The Associated Press on Thursday that his soldiers had already pulled back from the region of Masisi to Sake, 18 miles west of Goma. "We are withdrawing," he said. "Tomorrow we will (retreat to) Goma," on track to leave the city as asked.
In the village of Mushaki, in Masisi territory, a handful of M23 soldiers were still seen patrolling the town as of 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, but their reduced number suggested that a drawdown had occurred. In Sake, reporters saw several dozen rebels. They were loading bags of food rations onto a vehicle, appearing to be getting ready to leave the town.
Despite the assurances by rebel leaders, in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday it is unclear whether the rebels will fully withdraw from Goma, the capital of North Kivu province which serves as the main trading and shipping point for the gold and tin carved out of North Kivu's mineral-rich soil.
"We do see some movement of M23 troops, but we can't tell whether this is preparatory to a withdrawal or whether it's just sort of a redeployment," she said. "But we are continuing to press and to urge those with influence to press as well."
The humanitarian situation in Goma and the neighboring towns taken by M23 was worsening, with tens of thousands of people uprooted due to the fighting. In Sake, the International Committee for the Red Cross said people had returned, abandoning a camp for displaced persons, but many found their homes looted or destroyed.
"They have almost no food supplies and are unable to reach their fields," said Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC delegation in Congo.
Congo has agreed to negotiate with the rebels and hear their grievances, once they have retreated to 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Goma. The M23 rebels are the remnants of a now-defunct rebel group that agreed to put down its arms on March 23, 2009, in return for being integrated into the national army.
Their integration proved problematic from the start, with the ex-rebels simply changing their uniforms. They continued controlling key mines and imposing taxes on the trucks and porters leaving the pits. Congo's government simply looked the other way until earlier this year, when the government attempted to relocate the battalions of ex-rebels, apparently to disrupt their smuggling operation.
Hundreds of soldiers defected from the army in April, launching the M23 rebellion. The United Nations Group of Experts report released last week shows that the fighters are receiving sophisticated equipment as well as new recruits from Rwanda.
"With regard to the M23 rebel group, there is only one way forward: They must meet their commitments under the Kampala accords to cease their attacks, withdraw from Goma and pull back to the July lines," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters on Wednesday in Washington, after a meeting with the chairwoman of the African Union. "Under the Kampala accords, President Kabila's government has agreed to hear and address the grievances of the M23 leaders and we call on leaders and governments from throughout the region to halt and prevent any support to the M23 from their territory."
Clinton as well as African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma sidestepped the issue of Rwanda's support for the rebels. Asked why Rwanda is not being called out publicly, Zuma said: "Our approach to this matter is that is doesn't help us in finger pointing, we just need a solution. ... Rwanda was there (at the Kampala meeting). It supported the decision so for us, that is what is important."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay contributed from Goma, Congo.