Congo Rebels Prepare Goma Withdrawal as U.S. Presses Rwanda

Congolese Rebels Prepare Goma Withdrawal as U.S. Presses Rwanda
M23 rebel soldiers stand guard at the former Congolese army headquarters after it was abandoned by fleeing Congolese army soldiers in Goma, on Nov. 23, 2012. Photographer: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebel group said it’s preparing to withdraw from Goma, a day after saying any pull-out would be conditional on President Joseph Kabila’s government meeting a series of demands.

The renegade fighters plan to move 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, as requested by regional leaders on Nov. 24, Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, head of M23’s political wing, said in a phone interview today from the city. M23 military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama said in a separate interview that he was withdrawing with some troops to Masisi Territory in North Kivu.

“We will withdraw and then we will see if the government is serious,” Runiga said. After the pull-out, the M23 wants direct talks with Kabila that will include members of Congo’s opposition and civil society, he said.

Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces are one of the world’s largest sources of columbite-tantalite, the mineral known as coltan that’s used in mobile phones and computers. The central African nation is also the continent’s biggest producer of tin ore, most of which is mined in the Kivus. Banro Corp., based in Toronto, operates the Twangiza gold mine about 200 kilometers south of Goma in South Kivu.

Conditional Pullout

M23, which captured Goma a week ago, said yesterday its forces would only retreat once the government agreed to the talks, dissolved the electoral commission and released political prisoners. Congo rejected the call for broad-based negotiations and said any talks would focus solely on the implementation of a March 23, 2009 peace deal. The group, which takes its name from the date of that pact, rebelled after saying the government failed to respect it.

General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, leads the group of soldiers who mutinied in April. A United Nations group of experts monitoring Congo’s arms embargo has accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing the insurgents, allegations both governments deny.

M23’s indecision about whether to withdraw reflects internal divisions, particularly between its political and military wings, Jason Stearns, who researches armed groups for the Nairobi-based Rift Valley Institute and headed the UN group of experts panel in 2008, said in an interview today in Goma.

Rebel Divide

The split dates back to the group’s former incarnation as the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, which was led by General Laurent Nkunda. In January 2009, Rwanda placed Nkunda under house arrest, allowing Ntaganda to take control of the rebellion and sign the March peace agreement. Nkunda’s supporters within the rebellion, including M23 commander Brigadier-General Sultani Makenga, resented the move, Stearns said.

“There are serious tensions between Ntaganda and Makenga,” Stearns said. “Since the beginning, the M23 has suffered from internal contradictions within the military, but also between the military and political wings.”

Makenga did not answer calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson met Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo two days ago and delivered a “very strong message” that the country use its influence to end the conflict in eastern Congo, the State Department said yesterday.

“We also expressed concerns in those meetings about any Rwandan support for M23,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, according to an e-mailed transcript of a press conference. “Our understanding is that we are also continuing to ask Rwanda to be active in this, but it is a slog.”

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