Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo -
Some 150 rebels aboard trucks could be seen Saturday at a mustering point in Goma ahead of their withdrawal from the key eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city under a regionally brokered deal.
General Sultani Makenga, the military leader of the M23 rebels, said the force, understood to number around 1,500, would leave Saturday as promised after occupying the city for 12 days.
“We will accept what they asked us,” he told AFP. “There's no problem.”
The M23 rebels will leave 100 men at Goma's airport alongside government troops, and neighbouring Tanzania is also expected to send a company of soldiers to the airport under the regional deal.
The rebels, army mutineers who seized Goma on November 20 in a lightning advance, have said they will withdraw 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the city, the main town in the DR Congo's mineral-rich east.
Makenga on Friday accused the UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo of blocking the withdrawal process by preventing them from recovering military materiel from the city's airport.
UN spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai said MONUSCO had barred M23 from entering the airport because control of the facility had not yet been assigned to a three-way force made up of UN, M23 and regular army forces as agreed under the deal.
Rebels are reported to have seized heavy weaponry and ammunition abandoned by the army, which fled in disarray when the fighters seized Goma and surrounding settlements in the chronically volatile region.
Residents have reported seeing dozens of rebel trucks carrying food and ammunition through the lush green hills on the shores of Lake Kivu toward Goma.
On Friday, hundreds of M23 fighters left Sake, a city they had also occupied some 30 kilometres west of Goma.
More than 270 Congolese policemen have arrived in Goma's port, having crossed Lake Kivu from government-controlled Bukavu some 100 kilometres south, with the army vowing to enter the city the next day.
The policemen were due “to secure the city of Goma after the pullout of M23 rebels”, said UN spokesman Mounoubai.
DR Congo's army chief General Francois Olenga told AFP that a battalion of government troops would be posted in the city and a company would be posted at the airport.
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.
Their campaign has raised fears of a humanitarian catastrophe and wider conflict erupting from 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.
Under a pullout deal struck this week in neighbouring Uganda with army chiefs from the 11-nation International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), senior officers from the regional bloc will monitor the withdrawal from Goma.
Decades of conflict between multiple militia forces - as well as meddling by regional armies - have ravaged Congo's east, which holds vast mineral wealth including copper, diamonds, gold and key mobile phone component coltan.
UN experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda - which played active roles in DR Congo's 1996-2003 wars - of supporting M23, a charge both countries deny.
Britain on Friday froze $33.7 million (25.9 million euros) in aid to Rwanda following “credible and compelling reports of Rwandan involvement with M23,” International Development Secretary Justine Greening said, a move condemned by Kigali.
Tens of thousands of civilians in DR Congo have had to flee repeated rounds of fighting over several years in the region.
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.
The instability in DR Congo's east was exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when Hutus implicated in the killing of some 800 000 mostly Tutsi victims fled across the Congolese border after Tutsi leader Paul Kagame came to power. - Sapa-AFP