Congo crisis: a deal with rebels, then maybe no deal

Congolese M23 rebels battling the government said Tuesday that they are withdrawing, reportedly unconditionally, from Goma. Then another M23 leader raised fresh demands.

Jerome Delay/AP
A column of Congolese M23 rebels is seen running on the Goma to Rushuru road as they look for FDLR (Force Democratique de Liberation du Rwanda) returning from an incursion into Rwanda Near Kibumba, north of Goma, Tuesday, Nov. 27. Rebels battling the government in the country's restive east said Tuesday that they are withdrawing, but then maybe not.

Confusion. Contradiction. Conjecture. Congo.

Congolese M23 rebels battling the government in the country's restive east said Tuesday that they are withdrawing, reportedly unconditionally, from the regional capital of Goma over the next few days after holding it basically unchallenged since last week.

Or at least some of them did.

While the rebel's military chief Sultani Makenga was heading back from the Ugandan capital Kampala after apparently finalizing a deal with regional army bosses to pull out this week, the movement's political head was in Goma laying down a stream of demands that Congo's government had to meet before any withdrawal would happen:

Dissolve the electoral commission, free political prisoners, start a dialogue with civil society and the diaspora, Jean-Marie Runiga, the president of M23's political wing, told Congo's President Joseph Kabila at a crowded press conference.

The contradiction was striking and the reason, some said, may boil down to the rebels' relationship with Rwanda. The M23 political wing is widely seen as a fig-leaf, an afterthought intended to offer local legitimacy to a rebellion that the UN says is directed, despite Kigali's denials, from neighboring Rwanda.

"While there is no question that Kigali is supporting M23, the interests of the two are not perfectly aligned, and some Congolese Tutsi leaders of the M23 may be under pressure from Kigali to withdraw while others do not care if they anger Kigali over refusing to do so," says Laura Seay, a regional expert at Morehouse College in the US. 

After meeting with Mr. Makenga in Kampala late Monday night Ugandan Army Chief Aronda Nyakairima told journalists on Tuesday that the rebels had agreed to demands from regional leaders last week and would be pulling out with “no conditions.”

“By midday [Tuesday] ... the M23 begins withdrawal through Goma to a selected ground of tactical importance while leaving a company of 100 at the airport. This withdrawal to be completed within 48 hours," Gen. Nyakairima says.

Makenga told international media outlets that they would withdraw – although he said it might take a bit longer – and military chiefs from the region are due in Goma on Friday to check on the process.

But it remains a question whether a withdrawal would really happen and why M23 would pull out. So far, rebel troops are holding firm in Goma Tuesday.

In a development that could slam the breaks on any withdrawal, reports from Rwanda indicated that rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, which comprises some of those Hutus responsible for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis, launched their biggest attack in years.

Rwandan officials said that FDLR fighters had attacked three villages close to the border with Congo and not far from M23 positions, although FDLR representatives reportedly denied the attack and many commentators said the timing was, at least, a major coincidence.

“I think a lot of people are suspicious about it,” says Thierry Vircoulon, a regional analyst from International Crisis Group.

In terms of M23, whose leadership is mainly Tutsi, claims of an attack by the FDLR in Rwanda could be used as an excuse not to pull back. M23 have used attacks on Tutsis in Congo to take military action and any sense that they may be under threat could prompt new fighting.

For the time being, amid the back room diplomatic deals to power struggles between the rebel's military and political wing – the doublespeak and conjecture continues.

On the ground though, all eyes are on whether M23 troops will really leave Goma. 

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