M23 rebel fighters have pulled out of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo city of Goma, ten days after its capture. The move boosts hopes that regional peace efforts could lead to an end to fighting.
Driving trucks loaded with weapons, joyous M23 rebels left Goma Saturday after a week of negotiations, as many of the city's 1 million people lined the streets.
The withdrawal was agreed to one week ago. Representatives from the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, who held talks with Congo's President Joseph Kabila and M23 leaders, had arrived in Goma the day before to monitor exit.
"We are leaving today," M23's military chief Colonel Sultani Makenga told reporters. Makenga said the pullout came at the request of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
"We are leaving for peace," he added.
Goma was ceded to the rebels by United Nations-backed government forces on November 20. The rebels had said they would oust Kabila and march on the capital of Kinshasa, 1,600 km (1,000 miles) to the west.
Congo and the UN have accused neighboring Uganda and Rwanda of backing the rebels, but both countries deny the allegations.
M23's exit could create the space necessary for further negotiations between the rebels and the Congolese government.
Kabila has said he is willing to listen to M23's demands, but he is under pressure from within his own army to seek a military solution as opposed to peaceful negotiations.
"If Kabila provokes us, we will come back," said Makenga. "If he wants peace there will be peace, if he wants war there will be war."
A violent campaign
M23 rebels, who were formally part of the Congolese army, said they took up arms against the government over its failure to respect a March 23, 2009 peace agreement that originally led to their integration into the military. They have since broadened the scope of their campaign to "liberate" the entire country.
The name M23 comes from the date of the peace agreement.
Hundreds of people have been injured and thousands displaced during the recent fighting, humanitarian agencies say. More than 5 million people have died as a result of conflict, hunger or disease in Congo since 1998.
The UN Security Council said Wednesday it would extend an arms embargo on Congo until February 2014 in an effort to stop the flow of weapons into the country that fuels armed conflict in the Central African country.
dr/ccp (dpa, Reuters, AP)