Rebel fighters have begun a retreat near Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after clashing with the Congolese army and UN troops. The rebel move follows accusations that they fired into neighboring Rwanda.
Fighters of the rebel group M23, which has clashed repeatedly with the Congolese military for more than a year, said on Friday they were withdrawing from the forefront of their most recent skirmishes. The group's leader said the retreat was in response to alleged shelling of a town across the border in neighboring Rwanda on the previous day.
"We have just asked our forces to withdraw from the Kanyaruchinya front line and cease combat so as to allow for an investigation into who was shelling Rwanda," M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa said in an interview with Radio France International.
Mortar shells struck the market place of Rubavu on Thursday, a town which lies less than 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of Goma, eastern DRC's main city. Local officials said the strike killed one woman and injured her baby.
Perpetrator of attack still unclear
It remained unclear on Friday who had carried out Thursday's cross-border shelling. Rwandan officials pointed the finger at Congolese troops. However, the UN - which has a 3,000-strong special brigade mandated with protecting civilians from the M23 rebels - said its own peacekeepers had witnessed rebels firing the shells across the border.
The M23 leader told Radio France International his forces would maintain its positions near Goma, but that they wanted to resume negotiations with the DRC government as soon as possible, "so that we can negotiate a solution to this crisis."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence and urged all sides to seek a peaceful solution. Rwanda maintained its stance that the "provocation" from the neighboring country would not be tolerated, raising fears that conflict could escalate.
The incident has inflamed diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Both the Congolese government and the UN have accused Rwanda of backing the fighters, a claim which Rwanda denies. However, Rwanda has refused to publicly condemn the M23, as well as calls from the US and France to levy sanctions on two of the rebel group's leaders.
Negotiations out of the question
The spokesman for the DRC government confirmed on Friday that M23 troops had begun drawing back from the frontlines. However, he ruled out any hope of negotiations.
"They are withdrawing but just to displace the problems they cause deeper into the country," government spokesperson Lambert Mende told news agency Reuters on Friday, adding that the rebels must disarm and become a political party in order to expect cooperation with the government.
Clashes with the M23 rebels have led to a continuous deterioration of stability and security in the vast central African country of DRC for nearly a year and a half. M23 troops - primarily from the Tutsi community - mutinied in April 2012 after claiming the Congolese government had not honored a peace deal. They took their name from the day of the accord: March 23.
In November last year, the rebel fighters advanced past hundreds of UN peacekeeping troops and invaded Goma, a city of one million people. International pressure forced the rebel troops to withdraw less than two weeks later.
The UN decided in March 2013 to form the extra intervention brigade of several thousand troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi.
kms/ (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)