GOMA: Rebels in the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of Congo began withdrawing on Saturday from the mining hub of Goma, the city they seized on November 20, sparking fears of a broader conflict in the war-weary region.
Around 300 rebels, army mutineers who seized Goma in a lightning advance, drove out of the city in a convoy of looted trucks headed north, singing as they left.
The M23 rebels have pledged to withdraw 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside the city under a regionally brokered deal.
Their campaign has raised fears of a humanitarian catastrophe and wider conflict erupting from DR Congo's east, the cradle of back-to-back wars that shook the country and embroiled other nations in the region from 1996 to 2003.
"We are happy that they are leaving, they have made us suffer," said 25-year-old Goma resident who gave her name only as Parfait, standing by the roadside watching the convoy rumble past.
"They have stolen so much, vehicles, ammunition, everything," she said, waving at the line of vehicles crowded with gunmen.
M23 commander Sultani Makenga, who was with the convoy pulling out, said he was obeying a deal struck with regional army chiefs under which they will cede control of Goma to UN peacekeepers.
"We will accept what they asked us," he said. "There's no problem."
However the deal calls for the rebels to leave 100 men at Goma's airport alongside government troops and UN peacekeepers as well as soldiers from neighbouring Tanzania.
Makenga, who was hit with UN and US sanctions last month over alleged killings, rapes and abductions committed by his men, leads some 1,500 fighters, according to a Western military source.
Also Saturday, rebels who had manned the Great Barrier border post, a key crossing point into neighbouring Rwanda, handed over their positions to DR Congo police.
Hundreds of M23 fighters left frontline positions around Sake, some 30 kilometres west of Goma, on Friday, trekking down from steep hillside positions carrying packs and crates of ammunition.
Rebels are reported to have seized heavy weaponry and ammunition abandoned by the army, which fled in disarray when the fighters seized Goma and surrounding settlements in the chronically volatile region.