GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda completed their retreat from Congo's eastern provincial capital on Saturday less than two weeks after taking control of the strategic city, a military official said.
The retreat, however, may be tentative after a leader for the M23 rebels said they now wanted to negotiate with the government within 48 hours.
Ugandan Brig. Jeffrey Muheesi, who is part of a mission sent by regional leaders to oversee the rebel retreat, said the rebels' pullout from Goma was complete.
"They have pulled out of Sake and Goma, and now Congolese government policemen are controlling the central bank, the governor's office and the border post," he said from the outskirts of Goma.
The M23 rebels took the capital of North Kivu on Nov. 20, after battling the Congolese army for nearly a day. The group had defied two earlier ultimatums to leave Goma, raising the possibility they did not intend to leave and giving credence to a U.N. report accusing Rwanda of using the rebels as a proxy to annex territory in the mineral-rich eastern Congo.
The eight-month-old M23 rebellion is led by fighters from a now-defunct rebel group, who agreed to lay down their arms on March 23, 2009, in return for being allowed to join the ranks of the Congolese army. M23 takes its name from the date of that accord, and the rebellion began in April, when hundreds of soldiers defected from the military, saying that the terms of the accord had not been respected.
In fact, most analysts believe the origin of the rebellion is a fight over Congo's vast mineral wealth, a good chunk of which is found in the North Kivu province where Goma is the capital. Starting this spring, the fighters seized a series of small towns and villages in North Kivu, culminating with the capture of Goma, a population hub of 1 million and a key, mineral trading post.
The regional bloc representing the nations bordering Congo had issued a Friday deadline for the M23 fighters to retreat from Goma, after the rebels had thumbed their nose at an earlier ultimatum. M23 rebels began retreating on Tuesday from the other territories they seized.
Trucks full of M23 soldiers were driving out of Goma this morning. A column of rebels on foot walked near the convoy, mirroring the column of fighters that first walked into the city a little less than two weeks ago. The rebels left in a matter of hours and in an orderly fashion, carrying rifles and ammunition. Some of the trucks also carried mattresses and even a generator.
"Now we are waiting for the negotiations, within 48 hours," said a leader of M23, Gen. Sultani Makenga, as he left Goma.
He said the rebels would wait for a cease-fire to be signed.
"If the government wants, we will come back," he said, adding that they'd do so through negotiations, or force if needed.
The rebels' withdrawal also comes after they attempted to force their way into Goma's international airport on Friday in order to seize arms belonging to the Congolese military.
"An agreement was reached yesterday over the ammunitions issue," said Sy Koumbo, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo. He said that U.N. peacekeepers had control of the airport and blocked the fighters from obtaining the arms.
But M23 leader Gen. Makenga said the matter had not been resolved.
"We decided to leave. We will get all this back, when our turn comes," he said.
Goma's residents have denounced the M23 rebels for looting several small shops and houses.
In the Majengo neighborhood, a shopworker said that fighters stole money, a phone, oil and alchohol. Other people said the M23 rebels were going door-to-door, looking for valuables to loot.
"At midnight, I heard my children screaming that someone wants to break the door," said a 65-year-old man who insisted on anonymity out of fear for his safety.
The rebels will settle in Kibati, a mere 15 kilometers ( 9 miles) from Goma in the coming days and 600 Congolese army soldiers will move into Goma alongside a neutral force made of troops from the countries that are a part of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.
Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay contributed to this report from Goma, Congo.