THE chief military commander of the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo said yesterday his group was ready to withdraw from Goma, the country's main eastern city.
Colonel Sultani Makenga told The New Times from the Ugandan capital of Kampala that the decision was reached after his meeting with the Ugandan Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima.
The meeting, which took place on Monday, was also attended by the Chiefs of Defence Staff of DRC and Rwanda, Lt. Gen. Didier Etumba, and Lt. Gen. Charles Kayonga, respectively.
The three military chiefs were on Saturday tasked by a regional summit to oversee the rebels' withdrawal from their "current positions to the ground of tactical importance not less than 20km from Goma town."
Gen. Nyakairima is the coordinator of the exercise.
A summit of four heads of state and other senior political leaders from the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) - a grouping of 12 countries, including Congo, Rwanda and Uganda - ordered the rebels to withdraw within 48 hours.
The directive came in the same week the rebels overran the strategic eastern towns of Goma and Sake.
"We shall respect the deal although the timeframe within which we are expected to withdraw is short," Makenga said shortly before flying back to Goma. He was speaking hours after the deadline had passed.
M23's External Relations Officer, Rene Abandi, told The New Times that they received the communication on Monday - two days after the Kampala meeting.
Abandi said, "We could not withdraw based on media reports. But now that we have been informed officially, we are going to pull out as soon as possible."
He said they would go on to identify a "ground of tactical importance" they would withdraw to.
The regional summit also asked President Joseph Kabila's government to "listen, evaluate and resolve the legitimate grievances of M23", a group composed of members of an earlier rebellion which ended in March 2009 following a peace deal with Kinshasa.
M23 fighters broke away from the Congolese army, FARDC, early this year accusing President Kabila's government of reneging on the terms of that deal, which was brokered by former African presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) and Benjamin Mkapa (Tanzania).
Col. Makenga said that he had no idea when talks between the two sides would commence.
However, addressing a news conference in Goma later yesterday, M23 political chief Bishop Jean Marie Runiga insisted the rebels would not withdraw from Goma unless President Kabila met their conditions, among which include release of political prisoners and dissolution of the electoral commission.
"We shall withdraw even faster if Kabila agrees to our demands," Runiga, who last Saturday met with President Kabila in Kampala, told reporters.
Flanked by several M23 officials, Runiga said Kabila's government was "rotten with corruption" citing the country's dilapidated roads, schools and hospitals.
"You can clearly see that all these existing institutions are those left behind by the Belgian colonialists. Any negotiations must encompass these issues," he said.
"We want the participation of the opposition groups, civil society and the Diaspora so people can hear the truth and find a solution to these problems once and for all," he added.
Runiga insisted withdrawal from Goma should not be a precondition to negotiations, rather an outcome.
The Kampala summit also resolved that a composite force comprising one company of a proposed neutral force, one company of Congolese army (FARDC) and one company of M23 be deployed at Goma airport.
It further asked the 20,000-strong UN Stabilisation Mission in Congo (Monusco) to "occupy and provide security in the neutral zone between Goma and the new areas occupied by M23".
According to the ICGLR peace plan, the rebels are not supposed to be attacked once they have withdrawn from Goma.
Additional reporting by Sam Nkurunziza in Goma.