KINSHASA, Congo - The commander of the country's newest rebel group said that his fighters plan to retreat from Rutshuru, as well as most of the other population centers they have taken in recent days, as they wait for the Congolese government to begin negotiating with them.
Col. Sultani Makenga, the head of the M23 rebels, told reporters Sunday, hours after they took Rutshuru, that they planned to leave all the towns they've taken except Bunagana, a strategic mineral trading post at the border with Uganda. The rebels had taken the major town without a fight, after the military beat a retreat in the hours before the fighters arrived, said residents and an army officer who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
"The government is going to determine if they want peace. And if they want the combats to end," Makenga told reporters in Rutshuru in a press conference Sunday immediately after the rebels had penetrated the town, located around 40 miles (70 kilometers) north of Goma, the provincial capital of eastern Congo.
"If the military wants to keep fighting us, we will pursue them. Our plan is to retreat from the towns under our control and to leave MONUSCO (the United Nations peacekeeping mission) and the national police. But we plan to hold Bunagana because we need to keep a distance from our enemies," he said.
Until April, Makenga was an officer in the Congolese military. He and his men defected, accusing the government of not holding up its end of the March 23, 2009 peace deal that had paved the way for them to join the army in the first place. Pre-2009, the members of M23 belonged to the now-defunct National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, rebel group, which at one point came within a hair of taking Goma. Rutshuru was the largest town that the CNDP previously controlled.
The latest rebellion has shattered two years of relative peace, causing thousands of people to flee their homes. The ill-equipped Congolese army has been no match so far for the rebels, who took Bunagana on Friday, a town at the Uganda border which is important because it is a mineral trading post. The former CNDP rebels financed their operation by controlling the lucrative mines in and around Rutshuru.
On Monday, life was timidly resuming after the rebel takeover despite a climate of fear, said residents contacted by telephone.
"Traffic is starting up again little by little," said Jules Mushale, a 33-year-old inhabitant of the town. "But lots of people are taking a wait-and-see approach, as we don't know if the military is going to attack. The population is living in a kind of psychosis. One part is hiding in the peacekeeper's camp at Kiwanja which is 3 miles (5 kilometers) from here. ... I have myself evacuated my wife and my 3-year-old to Kiwanja. The only thing I am leaving here (in Rusthuru) are my animals."
In addition to Rutshuru and Bunagana, the rebels have taken the localities of Ntamugenga, Katale, Rubare and Kalengera.