Onlookers gather around a house damaged by overnight shelling in Goma, eastern Congo, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Fighting from the war in eastern Congo that pits U.N. and Congolese forces against rebels spilled over into Rwanda on Thursday when 10 shells landed in a Rwandan border town and a nearby village, killing at least one person, authorities said. (AP Photo/Alain Wandimoyi)
KINSHASA, Congo — Rebels entrenched in the hills above one of eastern Congo’s largest cities declared a unilateral ceasefire today and began retreating from the frontline, the first indication that a joint United Nations and Congolese offensive might be gaining the upper hand in the conflict.
The M23 rebels said that they have begun pulling back from Kanyaruchinya village, which has been in the crosshairs of the fighting that erupted on Aug. 21. On Twitter, they said they were doing so in order to allow U.N. inspectors a chance to investigate the shelling of nearby towns.
Reached by telephone, M23 president Bertrand Bisimwa said that beyond the investigation, his group was declaring the ceasefire in order “to give peace a chance.”
“We have decided to decree a unilateral ceasefire and we have started pulling our forces out of Kanyaruchinya in order to allow the investigation into the shelling,” he told The Associated Press. “This announcement, which was made unilaterally, is meant to allow the Congolese to return to the negotiating table.”
The declaration marks a significant change in tone for the M23 rebels. As recently as Wednesday, Bisimwa maintained that the rebels had the advantage and that U.N. and Congolese troops had been forced to retreat.
Congolese military spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli said late today that in addition to Kanyaruchinya, Congolese and U.N. forces had succeeded in routing the M23 from Kibati, a village they had controlled, and combat was ongoing in Kibumba, around 18 miles from Goma.
“They announced (their ceasefire) when they realized that they were losing on the ground. I am just back from the frontline and they have suffered heavy losses. They have abandoned an arms depot with heavy weapons,” Hamuli said. “They even abandoned a military vehicle which proves that they are quitting because if they are just retreating they should take their armaments with them.”
Created in 2012, the M23 rebels succeeded in seizing and briefly holding Goma last year. That prompted the United Nations to create a special intervention brigade, which, alongside Congolese troops, has been pounding rebel positions for the past week, using combat helicopters, artillery and armored personnel carriers. The rebels’ retreat suggests the weeklong offensive against the rebels might have turned a corner.
In Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende said the call for a ceasefire does not go far enough.
“It’s our opinion that the only interesting proposition would be to see M23 demobilized, and to see them dissolve and cease all military action. Any other proposal is unacceptable,” said Mende, Congo’s minister of information.
The fighting, which began on Wednesday last week, has so far claimed the lives of one U.N. peacekeeper as well as at least 10 Congolese soldiers and 14 civilians who died from the shelling on either side of the Congo-Rwanda border.
On Thursday, Rwandan officials confirmed the death of a woman in the Rwandan border district of Rubavu who died after a rocket coming from the Congolese side exploded in Rwandan territory.
Angry Rwandan officials claim the rocket was fired on purpose by Congolese troops in order to drag Rwanda into the conflict — a claim that was seen as deeply cynical by some, given the mounting evidence that the M23 rebels are in fact a Rwandan proxy force.
A recent United Nations Group of Experts report describes how Rwandan soldiers sneak across the forested border in groups of up to 30 men to join the ranks of the M23, a group which is almost entire Tutsi, the ethnic group of Rwanda’s ruling class. Previous U.N. reports have described the logistical support Rwanda is providing, including night vision goggles.
Late Thursday, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said on Twitter that Rwandan troops could enter Congo. She said in a Tweet that her country is not currently in Congo, and added the word “yet” in parenthesis. Earlier in the day she had said Rwanda had remained restrained “for as long as we can.”
Goma, a Congolese city of 1 million located on the Rwandan border, briefly fell to the M23 rebels last year in a humiliating blow both to the Congolese military, which barely put up a fight, and the thousands of United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the region, who stood by as the rebels entered the strategic town. They said they could not intervene because their mandate only permitted them to protect civilians.
“The perception is that they didn’t do a thing to stop them,” said Frances Charles, the Goma-based advocacy director for the international aid group World Vision. “There are literally photos where you have U.N. peacekeepers sitting in tanks while M23 walks past.”
In response, the U.N. created the new intervention brigade which is authorized to directly combat the rebels.