A planned withdrawal of rebel armed forces from eastern Congo under a deal brokered by regional governments is running behind schedule due to disputes, including a disagreement over abandoned army supplies that the rebel M23 group wants to take with them.
Leaders of M23 agreed to pull out by Saturday from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern border city of Goma, which they seized on November 20 after defeating government troops backed by UN peacekeepers.
Earlier, rebel leaders had said that they intended to continue fighting until they had toppled President Joseph Kabila.
They agreed, however, to a call made by the presidents of the Great Lakes region last weekend for a withdrawal to positions in and around Goma.
As the withdrawal began, M23 representatives said that some of their fighters did not want to pull back from Goma. They also accused the UN peacekeeping troops of impeding the withdrawal.
The disagreement with the UN centred over a store of munitions and equipment abandoned by government troops, the FARDC, at Goma airport.
The rebels said they had a right to take the supplies with them, but the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO, which was guarding the stores, refused to allow this.
“This is FARDC ammunition and does not belong to M23 so I don’t think we have to hand it over,” Madnodje Mounoubai, MONUSCO’s spokesman in Kinshasa, told the Reuters news agency by phone.
Colonel Sultani Makenga, M23’s military chief, accused the UN peacekeepers of “blocking” M23’s withdrawal operations.
“We have a store that has our logistical equipment and now MONUSCO is telling us not to get our equipment,” he told reporters west of Goma in the town of Sake, from which M23 was also due to withdraw. “We can’t agree to that.”
The dispute raised questions over whether the rebel pull out from Goma, which was being supervised by military chiefs from neighbouring states such as Uganda, would be complete by the deadline on Saturday morning.
Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from the town of Sake, said that the withdrawal had hit a “stalemate” over the issue, and it was unclear if it would now stall entirely.
‘They do not understand’
“M23 is going,” one of the foreign military observers, Ugandan General Geoffrey Muheesi, earlier told reporters.
Amani Kabasha, a deputy spokesman for M23, however, said that some of the group’s young combatants did not understand why they had to surrender a city seized after their offensive.
“We took this town by blood so it is not easy to convince them to leave. They do not understand it,” Kabasha said.
In Goma, armed camouflage-clad M23 fighters could still be seen on Friday, standing around street corners or in pick-up trucks.
In a sign that Congolese authorities intended to reassert their control over Goma after the rebel withdrawal, 300 policemen, some armed with AK-47s, arrived by ferry at Goma’s port on Lake Kivu on Friday.
The accord had called for the thousands of fighters to retreat from the furthest point first – Masisi.
From there, they would go to Sake, about 27km west of Goma, before withdrawing completely from Goma to a position 20km north of the provincial capital.
In Sake, reporters saw a two-kilometre long column of M23 soldiers moving out. The column of soldiers was at least 1,000-deep.
Walking in an orderly fashion, they carried their weapons, including mortar launchers on their heads and rocket-propelled grenades on their backs.
Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa, reporting from Goma, said that residents there were growing increasingly anxious at the prospect of a power vacuum once M23 leaves.
“While soldiers arrived in Sake in preparation of a withdrawal, there is much confusion over when M23 will leave Goma,” he said.
“While the city was extremely quiet on Friday morning, it was bustling by the mid-afternoon, though there is still much confusion on the streets.”
Residents are preparing for the return of government troops, and spoke to Al Jazeera about the difficulties they faced while M23 troops were in control of the city.
One resident, a fuel vendor, said that the insecurity that M23 brought has been terrible for business and she was looking forward to order being restored.
Another resident, an elder of the town, said that it was unlikely that M23 would withdraw completely. He said that they have infiltrated the city and would remain in civilian clothing.
“This is a sentiment expressed by many in the city. M23 has denied these allegations, describing them ‘baseless’ and ‘just an attempt to spoil the name of M23’,” said Essa.
‘Prepare for war’
A full rebel withdrawal from Goma would signal some progress in international efforts to halt the eight-month-old armed campaign in the eastern part of the country.
The current peace deal was announced at the weekend during the 5th Summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), held in Uganda.
The ICGLR is made up of Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, DRC, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.
Goma is an important hub in Congo’s eastern borderlands which have suffered years of recurring conflict stoked by long-standing ethnic and political enmities and fighting over the region’s rich resources of gold, tin, tungsten and coltan.
Congo has agreed to negotiate with the rebels and hear their grievances, once they have retreated.
But in Minova, Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga Tete, Congo’s newly-appointed head of land forces, said government troops were preparing to re-enter the city after the rebels had left it, and that only war could end the rebellion.
“I am going back to Kinshasa to prepare for war,” he said. “I’m going to ask our leaders for permission to wage war. We don’t want more negotiations. It’s war that will bring peace to Congo.”
President Joseph Kabila met M23 rebels for the first time at the weekend after the summit in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
The pull out 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.
The rebellion erupted in April when M23, which UN experts have said is backed by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, broke away from the DR Congo army, complaining that a 2009 deal to end a previous conflict had not been fully implemented.
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 the UN refugee agency.
Rwanda and Uganda deny supporting the rebels.
The UK has said that it is withholding a $34 million aid payment to Rwanda over allegations that it is supporting the M23 movement. Rwanda’s foreign minister denied the charge, saying that the allegations were “false and politically motivated”.