Rebel Withdrawal Offers Hope for Congo Peace
United Nations peacekeepers were overseeing the situation on Wednesday, as hundreds of Tutsi rebels led by General Laurent Nkunda withdrew from their position north of the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern North Kivu province.
“Since yesterday evening they (the rebels) have been withdrawing. They are pulling back south on three axes—from Kanyabayonga towards Kibirizi, from Kanyabayonga towards Nyanzale and from Rwindi south,” UN military spokesman Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said to Reuters.
The withdrawal raises hope that violence in the area between rebels, government forces and local militias will wane.
On Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that the rebel forces have agreed to talks with the army.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said that they would withdraw from areas near the northern towns of Kiwanja and Kanyabayonga to allow for a meeting between rebels and army officials on Wednesday.
Last week saw reports that government troops are engaging in looting and raping of civilians as they flee a rebel advance in the town of Kanyabayonga, north of Goma.
On Wednesday, rebels had formed a roadblock made out of the bodies of government soldiers, blocking a main road running north of Goma that leads into rebel territory. The roadblock was intended as a warning to government forces
The humanitarian agency Oxfam also confirmed that rape, forced labor, and other instances of brutality against civilians has seen a widespread rise in eastern Congo.
At a summit in Nairobi, Kenya, African leaders discussed an immediate cease-fire, an expanded role for UN peacekeeping forces and the creation of aid corridors for displaced people in the DRC. At the meeting, Secretary-General Ban expressed concern that the conflict could spread throughout the Great Lakes region. “The recent military offensives by the [Congolese rebels] have radically compounded the situation, led to severe humanitarian consequences and thrust the eastern DRC once more into a phase of heightened crisis. This crisis could engulf the broader sub-region,” Ban said, according to The BBC.
Fighting between rebels and government troops has continued unabated in Eastern DRC since August. In August 2007, the North Kivu region on Congo’s eastern border saw an explosion of violence, considered the worst fighting since the end of the country’s civil war in 2003.
According to British newspaper The Guardian, there are approximately 3,000 to 6,000 child soldiers in eastern Congo. At the war’s peak there were 30,000.
Based on UN figures, The Guardian added that approximately 350 Congolese women and girls are raped by members of the warring factions each month, creating a terrifying atmosphere that makes it difficult for citizens to defy these groups. For women in the region, rape is considered a normal part of life. Victims acknowledge that rapists will usually go unpunished, and in the DRC, the crisis has led to an unbridled spread of HIV/AIDS.