The Democratic Republic of Congo’s army began preparations for war as the M23 rebel group said it’s started withdrawing from Goma in the resource-rich east of the country.
Congo’s armed forces are massing in Minova and ready to fight, Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga, interim head of the nation’s ground forces, told reporters on the outskirts of the town, which is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) by road from Goma. There was no immediate sign the insurgents were pulling out of Goma, the capital of Congo’s North Kivu province.
“We are preparing for war,” Olenga said. “There will be no more negotiations after negotiations. Now it’s war that will bring peace.”
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.
The M23 rebels seized Goma, on the Rwandan border, on Nov. 20 and have said they will withdraw if the government negotiates with them. Congo accuses neighboring Rwanda and Uganda of backing the rebels, charges that both countries deny.
‘Residents at Risk’
“Our troops will gather tomorrow in Sake and they will continue their withdrawal,” rebel spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama said in an interview in Goma. Kazarama said the city’s residents would be at risk of attack from poorly paid government soldiers once they returned.
Throughout Goma, fears of rebel looting caused shopkeepers to close their doors early, according to store owners including Pierrot Machara, who runs a small supermarket in the city.
“The shops are closed because they are worried that M23 will pillage because it’s the last day before they leave,” Machara said in an interview.
M23 said on Nov. 27 its forces would only retreat once the government meets a series of demands including talks with opposition parties and civil-society groups, the dissolution of the electoral commission and the release of 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 rebel group, which takes its name from the date of that pact, mutinied from the national army after saying the government failed to respect it.
M23 rebels remained in their positions in and around the city of Goma today. Some rebels had changed into civilian clothes, said residents including one 30-year-old man in Sake who declined to be identified because he feared reprisals from the rebels.
Reporters saw rebel fighters in the hills in Sake, 26 kilometers from Goma, and along a road for about 4 kilometers toward army positions in Minova. A United Nations peacekeeping helicopter was seen flying overhead.
About 30 soldiers from a pro-government militia known as the APCLS, or the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo, patrolled the no-man’s land between the rebel and army positions.
“We’re advancing toward the enemy,” Major Janvier Baraka of the APCLS said in the town of Kirotche, about 6 kilometers from the rebels. “They’re foreigners who came here to take our land. We are natives, we are from here.”
Baraka said he had about 150 men with him to fight the M23 alongside the national army.
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 a UN group of experts panel in 2008, said yesterday.
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 current leader General Bosco 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.
Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
Makenga didn’t answer his phone when called for comment.