GOMA, DRC— Soldiers from the M23 rebel movement in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have withdrawn from the city of Goma after reaching an agreement with the Congolese government. Hundreds of M23 rebels packed up their belongings, piled into cargo trucks and headed out of Goma on Saturday.
Their convoy headed north toward the town of Kibumba, along the same road used to storm the town nearly two weeks ago. As they left, rebel fighters sang victory songs in Kinyarwanda, the language of neighboring Rwanda and some areas of eastern Congo.
The United Nations has accused Rwanda of backing the rebel movement, which began in April, and most people here in Goma suspect the same. Kigali has denied any involvement.
Under pressure from regional leaders, the rebels agreed to move 20 kilometers outside the city, to make way for peace negotiations with the Congolese government. But residents here, like Joseph Byabuze, said they do not think this is the end of M23 in Goma. “The movement we are seeing is leaving in military clothing,” he said. “But we are seeing them return in civilian clothes.”
M23 soldiers defected from the Congolese army in a dispute over a 2009 peace agreement that reintegrated rebels into the military. Since then, they have taken control of several towns in eastern Congo by overpowering U.N.-backed Congolese forces.
United Nations peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer welcomed the withdrawal, but warned the pullback "is an early step and that stability in the region remains very fragile." He said it is "critical" that M23 rebels comply with terms of the negotiated withdrawal "while a long-lasting solution continues to be worked on."
For his part, rebel leader Sultani Makenga warned Saturday that his forces are prepared to return to the city if President Joseph Kabila does not respect terms of the agreement.
Remi Bahati, a businessman in Goma, said he hopes the government will take the talks seriously, to avoid a return to war.
“So what we can ask the government? It's good to speak with the M23 because we heard that they are going not far from Goma," said Bahati. "They are 20 kilometers [away]. It's still [dangerous] for people.”
A group of 270 police officers who fled the fighting and went to Bukavu, a town on the other side of Lake Kivu, are back in Goma and are being deployed in the city.