Congo rebels pull out from Goma

Fear and confusion among residents as M23 forces move back to forest bases.

Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have begun withdrawing from the city of Goma after an interim peace deal brokered by Uganda.

Lorries filled with weapons, ammunition and food were seen heading from Goma towards rebel strongholds in the forests farther north.

Rebel patrols in the city, held for more than a week by the M23 movement, believed to be backed by Rwanda, had also been scaled back and witnesses said they saw fewer of the group's soldiers on the streets.

A group of leaders of neighbouring countries called for M23 to retreat no later than Friday to 20km outside of Goma.

Goma's future is uncertain if the M23 pull out completely. UN peacekeepers have proven ineffective and there was no sign yesterday of the Congolese Army making any move towards the city to take over after the rebels leave. It was unclear what strategic benefit the rebels won by giving up their greatest prize.

"They have been passing my house every day since they came here, but not this morning," said Joachim Kabori, a travel agent in Goma. "It is not necessarily a good thing that they go. People supported them, now who will protect us? There are bad people in this city, there can be looting or violence."

About 1500 UN peacekeepers were in Goma when M23 attacked on November 20 and Government forces fled, but the well-armed UN peacekeepers did not intervene, saying they lacked the mandate to do so.

Many people expressed anxiety about a possible attack by the Congo Army, which lies in wait several dozen kilometres to the south of Goma.

"This is a nerve-wracking situation. It fluctuates every hour and we cannot even plan for tomorrow," said Goma resident Ernest Mugisho. "The M23 needs to give a clear message because for us, the population, this is not good."

Government spokesman Lambert Mende, based in the country's capital more than 1600km to the west, confirmed they had also received reports of troops pulling out of Masisi.

"Yes, there are reports of movements [of their fighters out of Masisi] but we won't label it a retreat until it's over. They have played this game with us before, where they say they are moving and then find a reason not to," Mende said. "There will be no negotiations with Congo until they are 20km outside the Goma city limit."

In Goma, there was scepticism over the rebels' claim and confusion, after the leader of M23's political wing insisted that the fighters were not leaving the city of 1 million that is the economic heart of one of Congo's mineral-rich regions.

The rebel group has a large new cache of weapons, including heavy artillery, that was abandoned by the fleeing Congo Army last week, according to M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga.

While some fear M23, which in only eight months has a record of carrying out executions and of forcing children into its ranks, other residents of this lakeside city are afraid of the undisciplined Congolese Army.

M23 is made up of hundreds of officers who deserted the Congolese Army in April. Since then the rebels have occupied large sections of territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo.

The rebels accuse the government of President Joseph Kabila of failing to honour the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.

"I want Kabila to leave because he hasn't helped the people and our country hasn't moved forward since he came to power," said Augustin Katombo. "I think M23 should stay because we don't want the army to come back."

UN experts said in a report last week that M23 was backed by neighbouring Rwanda, which has provided them with battalions of fighters and sophisticated arms, such as night-vision goggles.

Rich mineral lodes at heart of struggles

Congo is sub-Saharan Africa's biggest country, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to two-thirds of the way across the continent.

It is plagued by a lack of roads and railways. The feeble government in the capital Kinshasa is nearly 1600 kilometres away from Goma, the strategic eastern town that was seized by M23 rebels on November 20.

A succession of rebel groups and warlords have for years taken advantage of the power vacuum to get a piece of the mining action in eastern Congo.

Eastern Congo is estimated to have mineral deposits worth trillions of dollars, according to mining experts. The area holds about 70 per cent of the world's supply of tantalum - a metal used in cellphones, tablets, laptops and other computers - and massive amounts of gold, tin, tungsten, copper, coltan and cobalt.

Much of the ore mined is smuggled out of Congo and passes through Rwanda, Uganda or Burundi, according to the Enough Project, a Washington-based organisation campaigning against conflict minerals. Some 450,000 artisanal miners work in eastern Congo.

- Agencies

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