M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] have withdrawn from several villages ahead of military deployments by a regional force, officials in the troubled region said.
A recent lull in fighting has come after the Tutsi-led rebel group advanced closer to Goma, threatening to cut off road links to the city of over one million people, on the border with Rwanda.
On Thursday, Alphonse Habimana, a civil-society leader in the North Kivu village of Mweso, told AFP news agency that the M23 had withdrawn from the area.
“The population is asking, what prompted them to withdraw without a fight?” he told AFP by phone, saying the rebels had retreated to about three kilometres from the village.
The East African Community [EAC] regional force has been tasked with overseeing an M23 withdrawal.
An official in the force, who declined to be identified by name, said the rebels had retreated from several villages in the North Kivu’s Masisi territory, west of Goma.
He added that soldiers from the EAC force’s Burundian contingent had begun to deploy to the area.
Some residents remain wary about the M23’s moves.
“It is a false withdrawal,” said Jean-Claude Bambaze, a civil-society leader in the Rutshuru region north of Goma, adding that he thought the rebels were preparing for a fresh attack.
Tensions with Rwanda
The M23, which DRC claims is backed by Rwanda, has seized swathes of territory in the North Kivu province since re-emerging from dormancy in late 2021.
In November, the seven-nation EAC began deploying a military force to eastern DRC to stabilise the region.
But clashes between the M23 and the DRC army continued, and several regional peace initiatives failed, including a ceasefire mediated by Angola that was to come into effect on March 7.
The army was still clashing with M23 fighters at the end of last week, according to several sources, and exchanges of gunfire were also reported on Monday.
Independent UN experts, the United States and several other Western nations have also concluded that the M23 is backed by Rwanda, though Kigali denies the accusation.