BENI, Congo (AP) — Eastern Congo’s M23 rebels retreated Friday from some of the territory it held, the group’s first withdrawal since it began seizing swaths of land more than a year ago.
The rebels left the Kibumba area and its positions were taken over by the East African Regional Force – a multinational force charged with protecting the area. This retreat is in line with an agreement made last month at a summit in Angola, Lawrence Kanyuka the M23’s political spokesman said in a statement.
Kibumba, in the Nyiragongo territory of Congo’s North Kivu province, has been held by the M23 since November and it was the closest that the rebels got to Goma, eastern Congo’s regional capital.
Speaking to reporters Friday from Kibumba, Gen. Jeff Nyagah, commander of the East African force, called on the civilian population to return home promising that they would be safe.
“We are determined to conduct operations in strict compliance with international humanitarian law and other conventions,” he said. “We appreciate the complex nature of the operating environment but our zeal and determination remain undeterred.”
The M23 rebels are largely Congolese ethnic Tutsis who became prominent 10 years ago when their fighters seized Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city on the border with Rwanda. The group derives its name from a March 23, 2009, peace deal, which it accuses the Congo government of not implementing. The group has been largely dormant for nearly a decade.
Since resurfacing more than a year ago, the M23 have been accused of killing civilians and seizing land in eastern Congo’s Rutshuru territory.
Earlier this month the United Nations accused the rebels of being responsible for massacring more than 130 civilians in two villages. The group is believed to be receiving weapons and troops from neighboring Rwanda, according to a report by U.N. experts.
The rebels’ withdrawal Friday comes on the heels of growing international pressure on Rwanda to cease support for the M23. Earlier this week the governments of France and Germany each condemned Rwanda for supporting the M23. In a tweet earlier this week, the German foreign ministry’s director for sub-Saharan Africa, Christoph Retzlaff, said the M23 should quickly contribute to a solution to the “disastrous” crisis.
While the M23’s withdrawal from one of its positions in eastern Congo is a first step toward a resolution, it remains a fraction of the areas that the rebels control, say regional experts.
“Hours ago, they were still engaged in fighting in Masisi territory showing opposite intentions. They should withdraw from all positions, their commanders and their backers involved in serious crimes should be held accountable,” said Thomas Fessy of Human Rights Watch.
It’s unclear how much more territory the group will cede. It still accuses the Congo government of attacking its positions and killing civilians.
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