Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo withdrew from a strategic town in the mineral-rich province of North Kivu a day after taking it from government forces without a fight, a rebel spokesman and the United Nations said.
The so-called M23 rebel force entered the town of Rutshuru unopposed on Sunday after witnesses said government soldiers abandoned their positions. The rebels later moved into the adjoining town of Kiwanja.
“We are now back in our old bases. We have left the police and (the U.N.) there for the protection of the population,” M23’s Colonel Vianney Kazarama told Reuters.
Congo’s U.N. peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, said M23 fighters had pulled out of Rutshuru and Kiwanja as well as the village of Rubare, also taken by the rebels on Sunday.
“(The rebels) abandoned their positions in town and moved to the surrounding mountains,” Rutshuru resident Lucien Amoli said.
An M23 statement on Monday warned the army against returning to the towns, saying any attempt to do so would be “immediately and energetically repressed” by the rebels.
The M23 insurgents, dominated by Congolese Tutsis, take their name from a March 2009 peace deal that ended a previous rebellion in North Kivu and led to their integration into the national army. They deserted the government ranks earlier this year, accusing the government of not respecting the agreement.
Like the 2004-2009 rebellion, the current mutiny has its roots in ethnic and political wounds dating back to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Later invasions of Congo by Rwandan forces and Kigali’s backing of Congolese rebels fuelled two successive wars that killed several million people.
The recent gains for the rebel movement in North Kivu province risk dragging the vast, loosely governed central African state back into war.
They also threaten to further damage relations with Rwanda, which has denied allegations by Congolese authorities and a panel of U.N. investigators that it is supporting the rebels.
PROTEST IN GOMA
The capture of Rutshuru, days after M23 fighters seized the mineral transit town of Bunagana, had raised fears of an advance on Goma, the provincial capital 70 km (40 miles) to the south.
The rebels, then known as the CNDP, took Rutshuru in 2008, paving the way for a southward push that eventually forced the government in Kinshasa to negotiate the 2009 deal that led to their integration into the army.
A U.N. source said on Sunday MONUSCO was looking to use its reserves to protect Goma, but a spokesman for the peacekeeping mission said the city was not under threat.
“As far as threatened militarily, not at this time,” Alex Essome told Reuters on Monday.
A Reuters reporter in Goma said several hundred residents took to the streets on Monday to protest against the rebels and some went to the regional army headquarters to demand arms and training to fight. Local shops and markets closed.
Anti-Tutsi mobs roamed the streets, demanding arms, while police had to escort some Rwandan students across the border.
The movement’s leaders have said their aim is not to gain territory but to push the government towards negotiations. The rebels offered to halt their advance on Saturday if Kinshasa opened talks with them.
“We have demonstrated our capacity … It’s now the turn of the government to react and give their position,” Kazarama said.
Congo’s Defence Ministry, in a memo seen by Reuters on Sunday, called for renewed operations to arrest senior M23 figures including Makenga and General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
The Congolese government’s acting spokesman said M23’s recent successes were further proof of external support.
“We’ve seen a sudden and major increase in the fire power and forces of the mutineers,” Tryphon Kin Kiey told Reuters.
“These facts corroborate the support from the neigbouring country, largely documented by the U.N., from which the mutineers are benefiting,” he said.