The M23 rebels have promised to retreat from the town of Rumangabo in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) weeks after they announced they would leave the nearby city of Kibumba, but the DRC military has questioned the rebel group’s intentions.
The armed group, which is allegedly backed by neighbouring Rwanda, had promised to hand over Rumangabo on Thursday, but it has been delayed. It also pledged to hand over Rumangabo military base, captured in November, to the East African Community’s (EAC) military force, which has been tasked to restore stability in the troubled region.
According to the spokesman of the EAC, Kenyan Major Wanyoni Nyakundi, the planned handover ceremony will now likely occur on Friday.
The group has made significant territorial gains since it launched an offensive in October last year after months of relative peace.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and hundreds have been killed as M23 fighters advanced towards the city of Goma, a commercial hub of over one million people.
The group first rose to prominence in 2012 when it captured Goma before being driven out and going to ground the following year.
The M23 has conquered swaths of territory in the eastern DRC, including the key town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border in June, since it launched its offensive in late 2021.
On December 23, the rebel group announced that it would withdraw from its position in the town of Kibumba – about 20km (12 miles) from Goma, which the M23 briefly overran during their first big insurrection in 2012 – as a “goodwill gesture done in the name of peace”.
Despite these pledges, the reality of M23’s announced withdrawals on the ground is hazy.
The Congolese army has dubbed the Kibumba handover a “sham”, saying the move was designed to distract from the group reinforcing its positions elsewhere.
The M23 rebels were accused of continued fighting despite agreeing to a ceasefire last November.
Locals claim that the rebels have retreated from Kibumba’s town centre but remain present in the surrounding area. But M23 dismissed the reports on Wednesday, saying it had withdrawn from Kibumba.
Since M23 announced withdrawal from Kibumba last month, clashes between the M23, Congolese troops and rival militias have continued.
Fighting has been ongoing in the Bwiza region of North Kivu’s Rutshuru territory since last week.
But M23 spokesman Willy Ngoma accused the Congolese army and allied militia groups of provoking the fighting.
“They are the ones attacking us,” he said, adding that M23 retaliated to protect eastern Congo’s Tutsi community.
M23 has also recently captured several villages as well as the town of Nyamilima in the northeast of Goma, near the Ugandan border.
DRC expelled Rwanda’s ambassador in October in the wake of the latest round of fighting, accusing its neighbour of backing the group. But Kigali has denied the allegations.
Rwanda is a key to ensuring peace, according to DRC government spokesman Patrick Muyaya Katembwe.
“Rwanda has to do what it has to do to make sure peace comes back to this part of DRC,” Katembwe told Al Jazeera, referring to the “de-escalation process” that their presidents agreed to in July.