On Friday, the Congolese army captured strategic hills overlooking the city of Goma in the east after March 23 movement (M23) fighters pulled out from the area.
On Saturday, the M23 rebels, who defected from the Congolese army in April 2012 in protest over alleged mistreatment in the army, issued a statement saying that their decision for a “unilateral ceasefire” and withdrawal was aimed at “creating a favorable climate” for a “political solution to the crisis”.
“We demand that the Congolese government return soon to the negotiating table to find a political solution to the crisis,” said Bertrand Bisimwa, the president of the rebel movement.
“If the Congolese government pushes on with the military option to the detriment to the Kampala (peace) talks, our armed forces reserve the right to retake control” of positions just outside Goma, the main city in eastern Congo.
Congolese army spokesman Lt. Colonel Olivier Hamuli said on Friday, “They did not leave by choice, they were confronted with the power of the army.”
The Congolese army, backed by new United Nations intervention brigade, has been shelling M23 rebels near Goma for some days to drive them back.
The Intervention Brigade has been given a stronger mandate by the UN Security Council to launch offensive operations against armed groups in eastern Congo.
The M23 rebels seized Goma on November 20, 2012 after UN peacekeepers gave up the battle for the frontier city. The rebels withdrew from the city on December 1, 2012 under a ceasefire accord.
During a November 24 summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), an 11-member regional bloc, the Congolese government pledged to start peace talks with M23 rebels.
The talks between Kinshasa and the M23 began in December 2012 but broke down in April 2013.
The M23 rebels and several other armed groups are active in eastern Congo and are fighting for control of the country’s vast mineral resources, such as gold, the main tin ore cassiterite, and coltan (columbite-tantalite), which is used to make many electronic devices, including cell phones.
Since early May 2012, nearly three million people have fled their homes in eastern Congo. About 2.5 million have resettled in Congo, but about 500,000 have crossed into neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.