GOMA, Congo (AP) -- Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda began retreating from the territory they seized last week and pulled out of the region of Masisi, their military leader said Wednesday, in a sign that international pressure has stemmed the advance of the fighters.
Gen. Sultani Makenga, the military chief for the eight-month-old rebellion known as M23, said his fighters intend to abide by an ultimatum issued by neighboring nations that called for their withdrawal from Goma by Friday. He said he had ordered his fighters to retreat along the southeastern axis from Masisi to Goma, and they will then leave Goma via the northern route to Rutshuru.
But in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is waiting for M23 to act and that it is unclear if the rebels definitely plan to withdraw from Goma, a strategic city in eastern Congo's mineral-rich region.
"We do see some movement of M23 troops, but we can't tell whether this is preparatory to a withdrawal or whether it's just sort of a redeployment," she said. "But we are continuing to press and to urge those with influence to press as well."
She said the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, met with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Prime Minsiter Augustin Matata Ponyo on Wednesday, hopbing to press all parties to support the plan that would see the M23 withdraw from Goma before a longer-term resolution is reached.
M23's military commander made assurances that the rebels will complete a pullback.
"My soldiers began to retreat from Masisi yesterday. We will go via Goma and then after that we will retreat to 20 kilometers (12 miles) past Goma toward Rutshuru," Makenga told The Associated Press. "I think that by Friday we will be able to complete this."
The M23 rebel group is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then they have occupied numerous villages and towns in mineral-rich eastern Congo, culminating in the seizing of the crucial, provincial capital of Goma last week. Although they claim to be fighting because the Congolese government has not upheld their end of a March 23, 2009 peace deal, an in-depth report by the United Nations Group of Experts says that M23 is a Rwandan proxy fighting in order to control eastern Congo's lucrative mines.
Congo's government spokesman Lambert Mende, who is based in the country's capital over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the west, confirmed that they had received reports of troops pulling out of Masisi.
"Yes, there are reports of movements (of their fighters out of Masisi) but we won't label it a retreat until it's over. They have played this game with us before, where they say they are moving and then find a reason not to," Mende said. "There will be no negotiations with Congo until they are 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside the Goma city limit."
A regional bloc representing nations in the Great Lakes region of Africa had issued a deadline calling for M23 to retreat no later than Friday to 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Goma. They issued their ultimatum from Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda.
In Goma, there was skepticism over the rebels' claim and confusion, after the leader of M23's political wing insisted that the fighters were not leaving the city of 1 million that is the economic heart of one of Congo's mineral-rich regions.
M23 Vice-Minister of the Interior Theophile Ruremesha told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Congolese President Joseph Kabila's government needs to meet their wide-ranging demands for them to leave the city. "Kabila has to meet our demands if we are to pull out," he said.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to discuss the situation in Congo.
"With regard to the M23 rebel group, there is only one way forward: they must meet their commitments under the Kampala accords to cease their attacks, withdraw from Goma and pull back to the July lines," Clinton told reporters on Wednesday. "Under the Kampala accords, President Kabila's government has agreed to hear and address the grievances of the M23 leaders and we call on leaders and governments from throughout the region to halt and prevent any support to the M23 from their territory."
But both Clinton and Zuma sidestepped the issue of Rwanda's support for the rebels. Asked why Rwanda is not being called out publicly, Zuma said: "Our approach to this matter is that is doesn't help us in finger pointing, we just need a solution. ... For us, what is important is to get a resolution to that problem and the rest will be taken care of because Rwanda is part of the Great Lakes," she said. "Rwanda was there (at the Kampala meeting). It supported the decision so for us, that is what is important."
Clinton ducked the question, adding: "I would fully support the chairperson's comments. We have consistently called on all parties, including Rwanda, to play a positive role in helping bring about a peaceful resolution to this conflict and that includes ending any and all support for M23. Any military assistance from anyone to the M23 is in violation of the UN arms embargo."
In Goma, while some fear the M23, a group which in only eight months has a record of carrying out executions and of forcing children into its ranks, other residents of this lakeside city are afraid of the undisciplined Congolese army that was pushed out of Goma by the rebels on Nov. 20. Dozens of people came out for an anti-Kabila rally.
"I want Kabila to leave because he hasn't helped the people and our country hasn't moved forward since he came to power," said one of the marchers, Augustin Katombo. "I think M23 should stay because we don't want the army to come back."
About 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers were in Goma when M23 attacked on Nov. 20 and government forces fled, but the well-armed U.N. peacekeepers did not intervene, saying they lacked the mandate to do so. One of their main missions is to protect civilians.
A U.N. group of experts said in a detailed report last week that M23 is backed by neighboring Rwanda, which has provided them with battalions of fighters and sophisticated arms, like night vision goggles.
Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal. Matthew Lee in Washington and Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay also contributed to this report from Goma, Congo.