The M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have agreed to a regional peace plan that requires them to withdraw from the strategic eastern towns of Goma and Sake, a rebel official has said.
Speaking to The New Times in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, M23 head of external relations, Rene Abandi, said the decision had been reached after the rebels commander Sultani Makenga met with Uganda’s Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Aronda Nyakairima on Monday.
The meeting, which took place in Kampala, was also attended by the Chiefs of Defence Staff of DRC and Rwanda, Lt. Gen. Didier Etumba, and Lt. Gen. Charles Kayonga, respectively, according to our correspondent in Kampala.
The three military chiefs were on Saturday tasked by a regional summit to oversee the rebels’ withdrawal from “current positions to the ground of tactical importance not less than 20km from Goma town within two days”.
Asked when the pullout would begin, Abandi said, “As soon as he (Makenga) arrives in Goma. We are ready to respect the ICGLR peace deal.”
He was referring to a statement, released on Saturday, after a regional summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, attended by four Heads of State and other political leaders from the twelve countries that constitute the grouping.
The New Times understands Makenga has already left Kampala along with M23 political chief Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero.
But the M23 official said there was need for a ceasefire, while the rebels move to honour regional demands.
“While we plan to withdraw, there is no ceasefire in place…The government is making troop reinforcements in areas close to our current lines; we want a ceasefire. On our part, we are committed to respecting whatever the presidents asked of us,” added Abandi.
But he did not specify which area they intended to withdraw to. “We are withdrawing to a place of tactical importance which we are yet to determine. Certainly we can’t relocate to a river or road.”
The regional summit also asked President Joseph Kabila’s government to “listen, evaluate and resolve the legitimate grievances of M23, including taking into account the report of the work already done by the ICGLR.”
Last Tuesday, the rebels, who launched a military campaign against Kinshasa in April accusing it of breaching the terms of a March 23, 2009 peace deal under which they had been absorbed in the national army, overran the strategic North Kivu Province capital of Goma, and then Sake.
They also said they intended to go on and topple Kabila’s government, a threat ICGLR has since asked them to drop.
The Kampala summit also resolved that a composite force comprising one company of a proposed neutral force, one company of Congolese army (FARDC) and one company of M23 be deployed at Goma airport, and also asked the UN Stabiliation Mission in Congo (Monusco) to “occupy and provide security in the neutral zone between Goma and the new areas occupied by M23”.
Bishop Runiga Lugerero met President Kabila on Saturday in the Ugandan capital, both sides in the conflict confirmed.
President Kabila’s government had previously rejected calls for talks with M23 rebels, whom it claims are backed by Rwanda and Uganda.
Both countries have also been implicated in a United Nations Experts report, allegations Kigali and Kampala have strongly denied, and instead urged the international community to back ICGLR’s peace process.
Last weekend’s summit is the latest in a series of high-level regional meetings, including five extraordinary Heads of State and Government summits in less than four months, designed to help find a lasting solution to the recurrent conflicts in eastern DRC.
Tanzania pledged to contribute to a proposed 4,000-strong African neutral force to help disarm the various armed groups in eastern DRC, while South Africa has offered to provide logistics to the envisaged force.
More than 40 armed groups, including the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – largely blamed for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda –, some linked to the government in Kinshasa, are believed to be operating in eastern DRC.
Congo hosts a US$1.4 billion-a year, 20,000-strong UN force, Monusco, which is generally considered inefficient and indifferent. For more than ten years now, the force has been dogged by allegations of gross violations, including rape and selling arms to rebel groups operating in the region.
The ICGLR maintains a group of 24 senior military officers under the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism in Goma that seeks to help restore confidence between DRC and her neighbours.Follow https://twitter.com/JMunyaneza