The M23 rebel group says it is ready to withdraw from occupied territory in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and will support regional peace-making efforts despite not being represented in talks.
The Tutsi-led armed group widely seen to be a proxy of Rwanda, a claim the neighbouring country denies, is “ready to start disengagement and withdraw”, M23 spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka said in a statement on Tuesday.
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However, the AFP news agency and local sources reported continuing clashes taking place between Congolese troops and M23 fighters near Goma, in North Kivu province.
“The M23 lends its support to the regional efforts to bring long lasting peace in the DRC,” Kanyuka said, also confirming the group’s commitment to the ceasefire agreement made by leaders of neighbouring countries in Angola last month.
M23, which is leading an offensive in eastern DRC and which Kinshasa describes as a “terrorist” movement, had previously said it could not cooperate with measures agreed at talks from which it was excluded.
On Tuesday, Kanyuka also requested a meeting with the regional East African Community (EAC) force to discuss modalities, and renewed its request for a meeting with the mediator, Kenya’s ex-president Uhuru Kenyatta.
Kenyatta facilitated the latest round of peace talks aimed at ending the conflict, which concluded in Kenya on Tuesday.
Representatives of about 50 armed groups active in the volatile, mineral-rich eastern DRC attended, but M23 was absent. The rebel group was excluded after it failed to withdraw and disarm by the ceasefire deadline.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Nairobi on Tuesday, said the other armed groups present at the talks denounced the presence of foreign-backed fighters in the DRC, which they consider the main problem.
For decades, neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda have earned vast profits from the DRC’s minerals, Webb explained.
“[DRC’s armed groups] say unless the problem of foreign armed groups and foreign-backed armed groups is resolved, and unless the Congolese army can actually protect their communities, there is no way they will lay down their weapons,” Webb said.
Kenyatta echoed the sentiments. “The problem is foreign groups engaging in Congo and leaving destruction,” he said at the talks, adding that the groups should “leave Congo in peace.”
M23 first came to prominence 10 years ago when it captured Goma, before being driven out in 2013. But it has had a major resurgence this year, staging several offences and gaining ground despite pushback from Congolese and regional forces.
The two sides have each blamed the other for instigating attacks in the eastern region. The DRC on Monday accused M23 of massacring 272 civilians last week, which it denied.
The continued fighting has left tens of thousands of people displaced, the United Nations says.
It has also sparked diplomatic tensions with neighbouring Rwanda, which the DRC and UN experts accuse of backing the M23. Rwanda denies this.
Peace talks aimed at ending the conflict are due to continue in January.