— The political chief of Congolese rebel group M23 says his forces will leave the captured city of Goma by Friday as a sign of good will, even if the government has not addressed their grievances.
The rebels seized the eastern city last week and have since taken the town of Sake to the west.
Jean-Marie Runiga of M23 told VOA News Tuesday that if regional leaders think the departure will help bring peace, then they will do so by the end of the week. Runiga said even if M23 withdraws it does not mean the group will back down on its demands for foreign groups and the Congolese army to leave the region.
Earlier Tuesday, Rene Abandi, M23's director of external relations, told VOA the group's military chief had promised that his forces would leave Goma as soon as possible, after a meeting with the army chiefs of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Regional leaders, including DRC President Joseph Kabila, had demanded that M23 pull out of Goma by the end of Monday.
A week after the M23 rebels took control of Goma with little resistance from the Congolese army, the group's president, Jean-Marie Runiga, said they are now willing to withdraw their military force.
But, as he told reporters Tuesday in the city, they still want Kabila to meets their demands, which includes the release of political prisoners and a national dialogue with the opposition.
“A retreat, yes,” he said, “but there are some conditions and if Mr. Kabila respects these conditions we will retreat.”
The rebels have been sending mixed signals about whether they really intend to leave the city.
Earlier in the day, the head of external relations for M23, Rene Amandi said the rebels would withdraw as soon as possible to demonstrate their willingness to negotiate with Kinshasa.
The Ugandan military, which has been organizing talks between M23 and the Congolese government, also had a different impression of the agreement. Uganda's defense chief, General Aronda Nyakairima, told reporters Tuesday in Kampala the rebels had agreed to begin the withdrawal Tuesday with “no conditions.”
M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga arrives to address media in Goma, DRC, November 27, 2012.
A boy carries a goat along a road near the town of Sake, 27 kilometers west of Goma, DRC, November 27, 2012.
A woman carries her child in Minova, 45 kilometers west of Goma, DRC, November 26, 2012.
The South Africa contingent of the U.N. peacekeepers in Congo erect a razor wire barrier around Goma airport, DRC, November 26, 2012.
Congolese army soldiers sit in a military truck in Minova, 45 kilometers west of Goma, DRC, November 26, 2012.
M23 rebels patrol around Congo's Central Bank in Goma, DRC, November 26, 2012.
With IDP camps filling up since the rebellion in eastern Congo began in April, newly displaced people are sleeping in churches until they can find a place to settle, DRC, November 23, 2012. (G. Joselow/VOA)
Displaced people from the town of Sake gather at the Mugunga camp on the road to Goma, DRC, November 23, 2012. (G. Joselow.VOA)
Families flee fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in the town of Sake, DRC, November 23, 2012. G. Joselow/VOA)
Meantime, Runiga, who just returned from talks with Kabila in Kampala, indicated the rebels remain prepared to fight if government forces launch an offensive against them.
“It is not the aim of the men of M23 to attack,” he said, “but if we are attacked, we reserve the right to respond and defend ourselves.”
African leaders at the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region over the weekend gave M23 48 hours to withdraw from Goma, a deadline that passed Monday.
The United Nations and the U.S. State Department also have called on the rebels to leave the city.