GOMA - The M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo appear to be withdrawing from territory they seized last week around the city of Goma. The rebels say they are pulling back to make way for political negotiations in accordance with a deal struck with the Congolese government.
With their weapons and gear slung over their shoulders, hundreds of M23 soldiers marched down from the hills through the town of Sake Friday as they prepared to withdraw from the city.
The rebels took control of Sake and the city of Goma more than a week ago, following fierce battles with U.N.-backed Congolese forces.
Now they are pulling back, as part of an agreement with Congolese President Joseph Kabila orchestrated by the leaders of the Great Lakes Region who met in Uganda last weekend.
"We are now in a process of withdrawing, and this process began on Wednesday morning and it continues until now," said Bertrand Bisimwa, the political spokesman for M23. "We can't say that we'll finish today or tomorrow, it's a process. The important thing to do is to begin it. And we began it. Let it continue, please."
M23 soldiers defected from the Congolese army in April in a dispute over a 2009 peace agreement integrating rebels into the military.
As the rebels have taken control of more territory in eastern Congo, they have added to their list of demands to include the release of political prisoners and greater dialogue with the opposition. They also say President Kabila's re-election last year was illegitimate.
Bisimwa says M23 hopes the soldiers' withdrawal will bring the president to the negotiating table to hear these demands.
"We don't have any proof that Kabila will accept to negotiate with us," Bisimwa added. "But we say this - if to withdraw from Goma is the price we have to pay, we have to pay it. And we are paying it now."
A joint verification team from the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) is currently in Goma meeting with M23 leaders to facilitate the drawdown and the return of government forces.
Earlier in the day, 270 Congolese police who fled to the town of Bukavu during M23's advance arrived at the port of Goma on Lake Kivu, waiting for permission to deploy into the city.
Meantime, Goma's residents remain on edge. Many shops were closed Friday in the city, since M23 rebels have looted homes and businesses in the past few days. The Congolese army was also accused of similar abuses when its forces retreated from the city.