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World - AP Africa

Rwanda Begins Exit From East Congo
Tue Sep 17,10:39 PM ET
By RODRIQUE NGOWI, Associated Press Writer

KINDU, Congo (AP) - Rwanda began withdrawing troops from eastern Congo Tuesday as part of an agreement signed with the Congolese government to end the four-year civil war in Africa's third-largest nation.

With U.N. observers filling out verification forms, the first of an estimated 1,600 troops in this town loaded equipment and supplies on to two Antonov-12 cargo planes to fly to Kigali, the Rwandan capital.

All the troops are expected to be withdrawn by Wednesday from Kindu, a city 200 miles from the Rwandan border that has served as a base both for Rwandan army troops and Congolese Rally for Democracy rebels.

"This first move appears to be a good move, a good start, we hope it will go on," said Maj. Gen. Mountaga Diallo, commander of the U.N. observer force in Congo.

The withdrawal did not impress Kabila's government. Vita Kamerhe, the government's general commissioner in charge of the peace process, said the troops being withdrawn had only been deployed in Congo a week ago. Still "this withdrawal is still somewhat encouraging," he said. It was impossible to independently verify his claim.

Joseph Mutaboba, secretary-general of the Rwandan Foreign Ministry, told reporters that Rwanda intends to withdraw all its troops from eastern Congo by the end of October in keeping with the 90-day timeframe established under a deal with Congo mediated by South Africa.

Rwanda declines to say how many troops it has in Congo, but unofficial estimates put the number at between 20,000 and 30,000.

In the Pretoria agreement signed July 30, Congo agreed to locate Rwandan Hutu rebels operating on its soil, disarm them and return them to Rwanda. The rebels fled Rwanda after taking part in that country's 1994 genocide, in which at least half a million people, most of them minority Tutsis, died in a 100-day slaughter orchestrated by the government of the time.

Privately, Rwandan officers complain that Congo is not keeping its side of the bargain and predict that the militiamen many of whom have been incorporated into the Congolese army will continue to threaten Rwandan security.

The commanding officer of the Rwandan army, Brig. Gen. James Kabarere, joined his troops in songs and dancing on the airport tarmac Tuesday, celebrating their return home. But he struck a somber note when asked by one his soldiers whether the war against the Rwandan militiamen, known as interahamwe, was really over.

"If the U.N. and Kabila do not live up to expectations, and the (militias) manage to infiltrate into Rwanda, then Rwanda will not sit back, it will respond," Kabarere said

Kamerhe, from the Congolese government, said 67 Rwandan militiamen had agreed to visit Rwanda to see if it was truly safe for them to surrender and return home. With that visit and the beginning of Rwanda's withdrawal, "we can see things are really beginning to move on the ground for the first time," he said.

Rwanda and Uganda both backed Congolese rebels in August 1998 when they took up arms against President Joseph Kabila's late father, Laurent Kabila. The Rwandans accused Laurent Kabila of supporting the Rwandan guerrillas, who continued to attack Rwanda.

Rwanda has come under increasing pressure from the U.N. Security Council to get out of Congo. Uganda signed a separate deal with Congo and has already withdrawn at least 2,000 troops.

A special U.N. panel set up by the Security Council to investigate the illegal exploitation of resources like gold, diamonds and timber in eastern Congo is expected to release its report in New York on Oct. 31. Sources close to the investigators say the report will be highly critical of both Rwanda and the rebels it supports.

No similar report has been conducted in government-held territory, where troops from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia were sent in to hold the line against the Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebel advance.

Namibia has pulled out its small contingent, and Zimbabwe began withdrawing last week. Angola reportedly maintains a token presence in southwestern Congo.

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