GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have started withdrawing from towns captured since last week from government troops, following a deal brokered by Uganda, their military leader said on Wednesday.
Such a pull-out would mean the M23 rebel group was giving up gains from a lightning offensive carried out in the past week, but there was no indication they were ending their eight-month-old insurgency.
The rebellion, which U.N. experts say is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, has raised the risk of all-out war in a borderlands region dogged by nearly two decades of conflict that has killed about 5 million people and is fuelled by competition over mineral resources.
"We're leaving Sake, we're leaving Masisi," Sultani Makenga told Reuters in rebel-held Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. "Goma will be later," he said, adding fighters would eventually pull back 20 km from the city.
"We want peace," Makenga said. "We're prepared for the return of government troops, they're going to come ... But if Kabila's troops harass the people we're prepared to come back in, we're just around the corner," he said.
Ugandan military chief Aronda Nyakayirima said on Tuesday after a meeting with Makenga that M23 had agreed to withdraw from Goma unconditionally. But M23's political leader Jean Marie Runiga initially cast doubt on the deal, saying the pull-out was contingent on a list of demands - including direct talks with President Joseph Kabila.
The mixed messages from Makenga and Runiga could be a sign of divisions within the movement, according to analyst Jason Stearns at independent think-tank the Rift Valley Institute.
"This is a military movement with a political wing created post facto ... it's undermined internal cohesion," he said.
Makenga told Reuters his decision to withdraw forces from Goma was made before the meeting with Uganda's army chief in Kampala, but Stearns believes M23 may be coming under external pressure given the storm of protest from regional powers caused by the rebel capture of Goma.
"The future of M23 depends on the diplomatic dance between donors, countries in the region and Kigali," Stearns said.
The rebels seized Goma on November20 after Congolese soldiers withdrew and U.N. peacekeepers gave up defending the city. U.N. experts say Rwanda, Congo's small but militarily powerful eastern neighbour, is giving orders to the rebels and supplying arms and recruits, a charge denied by Rwanda.
The Congolese army was sceptical about any M23 withdrawal.
"Let's see how things evolve, we'll see whether they're doing this in good faith or not ... Nothing has changed, we're still in our positions," Colonel Olivier Hamuli, spokesman for the FARDC army said.
About 100 people gathered in rain in Goma on Wednesday to protest against the possible return of government troops, marching to the U.N. offices to deliver a memo.
"When the government troops were here before we had no peace, now as we welcomed M23, we think they'll cause even more problems than before," protester Alain Safari said.
Makenga said rebel forces would withdraw to about 20 km of Goma, leaving a company of 100 soldiers at the airport, and allowing government troops to return to the city.
According to the agreement in Uganda, government troops would return to Goma on Thursday, followed by a visit on Friday by regional defence chiefs.
The conflict in eastern Congo - which has big reserves of gold, tin and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in making mobile phones - has displaced 140,000 civilians according to the United Nations.
(Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Pravin Char)