GOMA, DR Congo: Democratic Republic of Congo troops entered the eastern mining hub of Goma yesterday, two days after rebel M23 fighters withdrew in line with a regionally brokered deal.
The rebels’ lightning capture of Goma on November 20 — eight months after they launched an uprising against Kinshasa — had sparked fears of a wider war and major humanitarian crisis, and their withdrawal was widely welcomed.
Dozens of government army trucks crammed with heavily armed soldiers entered the regional capital of around one million people in the afternoon, after trundling along the shores of Lake Kivu.
A battalion of around 600 men in total is expected to move into Goma, the main city in the mineral-rich Kivu region, while government officials have also begun to arrive back to reassert their authority after 12-days of rebel rule.
While the M23 fighters have left the city, rebels remained camped just beyond the outskirts, appearing to break a deal to pull back 20 km from Goma, with residents fearing renewed clashes as the two sides edge closer.
However, the rebels claim they have not broken any agreement and that the fighters stationed around Goma are still in the process of pulling back.
“Our people are still there because you can only withdraw in stages, that is how it is done,” said rebel commander Antoine Manzi.
Ugandan army chief Aronda Nyakairima, speaking after a meeting in Goma with army chiefs of DR Congo and Rwanda, said he was “completely satisfied with the implementation of the accord so far” and that they rebels would fully pullback.
The rebels are demanding that the Congolese government begin complex negotiations with them and have threatened to march back into Goma if Kinshasa reneges on a pledge they say was made to begin talks.
Interior Minister Richard Muyej Mangez said the government is ready to start talks “in the next few days,” but that M23 should respect the agreement to withdraw the full 20 km.
“The team for dialogue is already constituted,” Mangez said in Goma.
“We want that all sides respect the agreement...and one of the points is that the rebels withdraw to beyond 20 km from Goma.” Uganda will mediate the talks, which will begin once a full withdrawal has taken place, Nyakairima added.
Tensions remain high in the war-blighted region, with gunmen on Saturday attacking the giant Mugunga camp, which lies about 10 km west of Goma and is home to up to 35,000 displaced people.
Residents were wary of the arrival of government soldiers, who, like the rebels, have been accused of the killings of civilians, rape and looting during the latest unrest in central Africa’s largest country.
In addition, Rwanda said Sunday that Hutu extremist FDLR rebels based in DR Congo — Rwandans who fled the country following the 1994 genocide of mainly Tutsis — had clashed on the border with Rwandan troops, but were repulsed.
The region, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, has been the cradle of back-to-back wars that embroiled other nations from 1996 to 2003 and were fought largely over its vast wealth of copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key mobile phone component.
UN experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda — which played active roles in DR Congo’s previous wars — of supporting M23, a charge both countries deny.
Under the deal agreed by the rebels, the M23 will post 100 men at Goma airport alongside similar numbers of government troops, soldiers from neighboring Tanzania and United Nations peacekeepers.
North Kivu regional authorities said that the airport would re-open on Thursday.
M23 was founded by former fighters in a Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 2009 peace deal that they claim was never fully implemented. Several of its leaders have been hit by UN sanctions over alleged atrocities.
Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the newly displaced, with some 285,000 people having fled their homes since the rebels began their uprising in April.