Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who last week seized strategically important territory in the east of the country, say they have pulled back several kilometres and are on track to leave the key city of Goma by Friday, in accordance with a pullout deal brokered by Uganda.
Fighters from the M23 group were seen loading seized government weapons onto trucks on Thursday and the group’s leader told Al Jazeera that they were preparing to leave the city.
“We must respect what the presidents of the Great Lakes have asked us to do,” Sultani Makenga said.
On Friday, however, he accused UN peacekeeping troops of blocking the withdrawal from Goma. He said that the withdrawal would continue once logistical supply lines had been unblocked by UN troop movement. Makenga was speaking from Sake, west of Goma.
UN officials denied that charge, with a spokesperson saying that the dispute was over supplies that the UN understood to belong to government forces, not the rebels.
Regional leaders have pressured M23 to withdraw from the area after they seized Goma, provincial capital of the eastern North Kivu province, on November 20.
A 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.
Leaders of the countries fear the rebellion in DR Congo could escalate into a wider conflict.
Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa, reporting from Goma, said 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. 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,” he said.
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, told Al Jazeera 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’,” reported Al Jazeera’s Essa.
Rebels have left the northern territory of Masisi but remained in the strategically important town of Sake on Friday.
On Thursday, lines of government troops carrying weapons and ammunition were advancing north from Minova on the road to Goma, approaching to within a few kilometres of M23 positions in Sake. The government says the troops will spend the night outside Sake.
UN peacekeepers held the ground between the two opposing forces.
The humanitarian situation in Goma and the neighbouring towns taken by M23 is worsening, with tens of thousands of people uprooted due to the fighting.
In Sake, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said people had returned, abandoning a camp for displaced persons, but many found their homes looted or destroyed.
“They have almost no food supplies and are unable to reach their fields,” said Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC delegation in Congo.
‘Prepare for war’
Congo has agreed to negotiate with the rebels and hear their grievances, once they have retreated to 20km north of Goma.
Goma was quiet early on Friday morning, with many shops remaining shut in the city centre. Rumours are still circulating about overnight looting and the hijacking of vehicles, though none of this could be verified.
M23 said that their planned ceremony marking their handover to the UN in Sake has been delayed this morning.
Meanwhile, as of Friday morning, there is little indication of a withdrawal from Goma, with M23 still in and around the city. Residents say they are confused by the events and power shift and fear reprisals when the Congolese army finally returns.
– Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa in Goma
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 a summit in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
The 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.
The rebellion erupted in April when the 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 UNHCR.
Rwanda and Uganda deny supporting the rebels.