GOMA, DR Congo (AFP) – Rebels in the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of Congo pulled out Saturday from the mining hub of Goma, the city they seized less than two weeks ago sparking fears of a wider war.
Around 300 rebels, army mutineers who seized Goma in a lightning advance, drove out of the city in a convoy of looted trucks headed north, singing as they left, raising hope its signals a step back from further conflict.
The M23 rebels have pledged to withdraw 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside the city under a regionally brokered deal, but complex negotiations now will focus on their multiple and sweeping demands, including political reform.
The conflict has prompted warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe and wider conflict erupting from DR Congo’s east, the cradle of back-to-back wars that shook the country and embroiled other nations in the region from 1996 to 2003.
“We are happy that they are leaving, they have made us suffer,” said a 25-year-old Goma resident who gave her name only as Parfait, standing by the roadside watching the convoy rumble past.
“They have stolen so much, vehicles, ammunition, everything,” she said, waving at the line of vehicles crowded with gunmen.
M23 commander Sultani Makenga, who was with the convoy pulling out, said he was obeying a deal struck with regional army chiefs under which they will cede control of Goma to UN peacekeepers.
“We will accept what they asked us,” he said. “There’s no problem.”
Under that deal rebels will leave 100 men at Goma’s airport alongside similar numbers of government troops, soldiers from neighbouring Tanzania and United Nations peacekeepers.
Ugandan Brigadier Geoffrey Muheesi, part of the regional team monitoring the withdrawal, said he was “totally satisfied” with progress of pullout.
“They are pulling out completely,” he said, adding that some 300 police officers had secured key parts of the city, including government offices, the central bank and a major border post with Rwanda.
Congo’s army are also preparing to move some 600 troops into Goma, a city home to around a million people, he said.
Senior police officer Julien Mwami said they were “trying to show the population that we are back to make them feel secure” and that, so far, the city was reported to be calm.