Rebels in eastern DR Congo say they have started withdrawing from territory they have captured from government troops, days after a pullout deal was reached in neighbouring Uganda.
Amani Kabashi, deputy spokesman for the M23 group, told Al Jazeera that rebels were starting to withdraw from the town of Mushake, 50km south of the provincial capital, Goma, on Wednesday.
Diplomatic efforts to end violence in eastern Congo have been ongoing since the M23 group captured Goma in fighting with Congolese troops and advanced across the east of the country last week. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting between government troops and the rebels.
Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the M23 military spokesman, later said rebels were to withdraw from the city of Sake on Thursday and Friday. They could withdraw from Goma over the weekend, he said, though that was not confirmed.
Herve Ladsous, the UN peacekeeping chief, told reporters on Tuesday night that rebels’ advances had stopped.
Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Goma, said there were no indications of a withdrawal from the city on Wednesday.
“The big question everyone is asking here is what happens next, if M23 withdraws,” she said.
“M23 themselves are saying they want a demilitarised zone around Goma. They’re very concerned that people who’ve been working with them in the city will be targeted once they leave, if the Congolese army comes in.”
M23 military leader Sultani Makenga said on Tuesday his men would leave Goma “in three days at the latest” and pull back 20km under a deal struck in Uganda the previous day with an east African regional group.
Makenga said the rebels had begun transferring arms, provisions and medical supplies from Goma to the Rutshuru territory north of the city, an area along the Ugandan and Rwandan borders.
Rutshuru has been the rebels main stronghold since they launched their uprising in April.
Reports from residents and the UN peacekeeping mission appeared to confirm the announcement that the rebels were transporting weaponry out of Goma.
Meanwhile, the M23’s political leader, Jean Marie Runiga, said the group was not against withdrawing from Goma, but would only do so if certain conditions were met.
He said demands included the release of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, a former prime minister who has been under unofficial house arrest since declaring victory in flawed elections last year that were officially won by President Joseph Kabila.
The rebels also demanded direct talks with the president and the dissolution of the electoral commission.
About 300 people marched through the streets of Goma on Wednesday in support of M23, Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa reported from the city.
They were carrying posters and banners calling for Kabila to step down and played music as scores of bystanders looked on from the roadside. A handful of police monitored the demonstration as the march brought traffic to a standstill.
M23 took over Goma on Tuesday last week after Congolese soldiers withdrew. UN forces did not intervene, saying they lacked the mandate to do so.
African leaders are scrambling to contain the latest violence in the region where nearly two decades of conflict has been fuelled by political and ethnic rifts and competition over vast minerals resources.
Kabila met M23 rebels for the first time at the weekend after a summit in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
Monday’s pullout agreement would allow the rebels to stay in their home region of Kivu, which is believed to hold up to three-quarters of the world’s reserves of coltan, a mineral used in the manufacture of many electronic products.
Ladsous said the UN’s main military adviser, General Babacar Gaye, would head for DR Congo and other East African countries to work out details of the withdrawal deal.
He said this would include the working of a proposed neutral zone, who controls Goma airport, which is currently in the hands of the UN mission, MONUSCO, and how to set up a proposed international neutral force for DR Congo.
The rebellion erupted in April when the M23, which UN experts have said is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, broke away from the DR Congo army, complaining that a 2009 deal to end a previous conflict had not been fully implemented.
The full name of the M23 is the March 23 Movement, which refers to the date when peace accords were signed in 2009 between the Congolese government and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a rebel group.
Under the agreements, former CNDP fighters were to be integrated into the national army, but some of them say they were not treated fairly and that the peace treaty was never fully put into effect, forcing them to commit mutiny and form the M23.
Since April, more than 475,000 people have been displaced in the country and more than 75,000 others have been forced to seek refuge in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, according to UNHCR.