goma, democratic republic of the congo - M23 rebels in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have withdrawn from several villages ahead of military deployments by a regional force, officials in the troubled region said Thursday.
The Tutsi-led rebel group had advanced closer to Goma, threatening to cut off road links to the city of over 1 million people on the border with Rwanda.
The M23, which DR Congo claims is backed by Rwanda, has seized swaths of territory in North Kivu province since reemerging from dormancy in late 2021. The seven-nation East African Community (EAC) began deploying a military force to eastern Congo in November in a bid to stabilize the region.
But clashes between the M23 and the Congolese army continued, and several regional peace initiatives failed, including a cease-fire mediated by Angola that was to come into effect on March 7.
The army was still clashing with M23 fighters at the end of last week, according to several sources, and exchanges of gunfire were also reported on Monday.
On Thursday, Alphonse Habimana, a civil society leader in the North Kivu village of Mweso, told Agence France-Presse that the M23 had withdrawn from the area.
'The population is asking what prompted them to withdraw without a fight,' he told AFP by phone, saying the rebels had retreated to about three kilometers from the village.
The EAC regional force has been tasked with overseeing an M23 withdrawal. An official in the force, who declined to be identified by name, said the rebels had retreated from several villages in North Kivu's Masisi territory, west of Goma. He added that soldiers from the EAC force's Burundian contingent had begun to deploy to the area.
Some residents remain wary about M23's moves.
'It is a false withdrawal,' said Jean-Claude Bambaze, a civil society leader in the Rutshuru region north of Goma, adding that he thought the rebels were preparing for a fresh attack.
Independent U.N. experts, the United States and several other Western nations have also concluded that the M23 is backed by Rwanda, though Kigali denies the accusation.