Eastern Congo’s M23 rebels withdraw from occupied territory


BENI, Congo — Eastern Congo’s M23 rebels withdrew Friday from some of the territory they held, the group’s first withdrawal since it began seizing swaths of land more than a year ago.

The rebels left the Kibumba area and its positions were taken over by the East African Regional Force – a multinational force tasked with protecting the area. This retreat is in line with an agreement reached last month at a summit in Angola, M23 political spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka said in a statement.

Kibumba, in Nyiragongo territory in Congo’s North Kivu province, has been held by M23 since November and was the closest the rebels came to Goma, the eastern Congo regional capital.

General Jeff Nyagah, commander of the East African Force, spoke to reporters from Kibumba on Friday, urging civilians to return home and promising they would be safe.

“We are committed to conducting operations in strict compliance with international humanitarian law and other conventions,” he said. “We appreciate the complex nature of the operating environment but our zeal and determination remain undaunted.”

The M23 rebels are largely Congolese ethnic Tutsis who rose to prominence 10 years ago when their soldiers captured Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city on the border with Rwanda. The group takes its name from a March 23, 2009 peace agreement, which it accuses the Congolese government of failing to implement. The group has been largely dormant for nearly a decade.

Since its resurgence more than a year ago, M23 has been accused of killing civilians and seizing land in eastern Congo’s Rutshuru territory.

Earlier this month, the United Nations accused the rebels of being responsible for massacring more than 130 civilians in two villages. The group is believed to be receiving weapons and troops from neighboring Rwanda, according to a report by UN experts.

The rebel withdrawal Friday comes on the heels of growing international pressure on Rwanda to end support for M23. Earlier this week, the governments of France and Germany condemned Rwanda for supporting M23. In a tweet earlier this week, the German Foreign Ministry’s head of sub-Saharan Africa, Christoph Retzlaff, said the M23 should quickly contribute to a solution to the “catastrophic” crisis.

While M23’s withdrawal from one of its positions in eastern Congo is a first step toward a solution, it remains a fraction of the areas the rebels control, regional experts say.

“Hours ago, they were still engaged in fighting in Masisi territory and showed opposite intentions. They should withdraw from all positions, their commanders and their backers who are involved in serious crimes should be held accountable,” said Thomas Fessy of Human Rights Watch.

It is unclear how much more territory the group will cede. It still accuses the Congolese government of attacking its positions and killing civilians.

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