KIBUMBA, Congo — M23 rebels in eastern Congo withdrew from part of the territory they held on Friday, the group’s first withdrawal since it began seizing swathes 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 tasked with protecting the area. The withdrawal is in line with an agreement reached last month at a summit in Angola, M23 political spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka said in a statement.
Kibumba, in the Nyiragongo territory of Congo’s North Kivu province, has been held by the M23 since November and is the closest the rebels have been able to reach to Goma, the eastern Congo regional capital.
Speaking to reporters on Friday from Kibumba, General Jeff Nyagah, commander of the East African force, called on the civilian population to return to their homes, promising that they would be safe.
“We are determined to carry out 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 unwavering.”
The M23 rebels are largely ethnic Congolese Tutsis who rose to prominence 10 years ago when their fighters took over Goma, the largest town in eastern Congo on the border with Rwanda. The group takes its name from a March 23, 2009 peace accord, which it accuses the Congolese government of not implementing. The group has been largely inactive for nearly a decade.
Since resurfacing more than a year ago, the M23 has been accused of killing civilians and seizing land in Rutshuru territory in eastern Congo.
Earlier this month, the United Nations accused the rebels of being responsible for the massacre of more than 130 civilians in two villages. The group reportedly received weapons and troops from neighboring Rwanda, according to a report by UN experts.
The rebels’ withdrawal on Friday followed growing international pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting the M23. Earlier this week, the French and German governments each condemned Rwanda for supporting 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 withdrawal of the M23 from one of its positions in eastern Congo is a first step towards a resolution, a fraction of the rebel-held areas remain, according to regional experts.
“A few hours ago, they were still engaged in fighting in Masisi territory showing opposing intentions. They should withdraw from all positions, their commanders and supporters implicated in serious crimes should be held accountable,” said Thomas Fessy of Human Rights Watch.
It is unclear how much additional territory the group will cede. He still accuses the Congolese government of attacking his positions and killing civilians.
Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro reported from Beni.