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Congo rebels declare cease-fire, retreat

| Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, 9:36 p.m.
A Congolese armed forces tank fires upon M23 rebels in Kibati, outside Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday, August 30, 2013.
A Congolese armed forces tank fires upon M23 rebels in Kibati, outside Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday, August 30, 2013.

KINSHASA, Congo — Rebels entrenched in the hills above one of eastern Congo's largest cities declared a cease-fire on Friday and began retreating from the frontline, the first indication that a joint United Nations and Congolese offensive might be gaining the upper hand in the conflict.

In a sign that the conflict could spill over the border, a large convoy of military vehicles loaded with troops, tanks, artillery cannons and heavy weaponry was observed leaving the capital of Rwanda, Congo's neighbor to the east, which is accused of funneling arms and troops to the M23 rebels.

Rwandan leaders said they were acting to defend their border after shells and rockets, allegedly fired from the Congolese side of the border, landed in Rwandan territory, killing a mother and wounding her 2-month-old baby.

Late Thursday, Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said on her official Twitter account: “Deliberate shelling of Rwandan territory unacceptable. Rwandan civilians are falling victims. A provocation that will no longer B tolerated.”

On Friday, she tweeted: “Rwandan troops are not in DRC (yet); when they are, you will know.”

The hostilities with Rwanda are escalating as Congolese and United Nations troops appear to be making significant gains against the M23 rebels. The U.N. intervention force has pounded the M23 rebel positions with attack helicopters and artillery fire.

Reached by phone, M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa said his group was retreating and declaring a cease-fire in order “to give peace a chance.”

“We have decided to decree a unilateral cease-fire, and we have started pulling our forces out of Kanyaruchinya,” he told The Associated Press. “This announcement, which was made unilaterally, is meant to allow the Congolese to return to the negotiating table.”

In a statement Friday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said that — in addition to the village of Kanyaruchinya — the rebels had vacated the village of Kibati and the area of Kibati Heights.

Congolese military spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli confirmed that the area of Kibati had been retaken, and said that combat was ongoing in Kibumba, about 18 miles from Goma.

“They announced (their cease-fire) when they realized that they were losing on the ground. I am just back from the frontline, and they have suffered heavy losses. They have abandoned an arms depot with heavy weapons,” Hamuli said. “They even abandoned a military vehicle, which proves that they are quitting because if they are just retreating, they should take their armaments with them.”

In Congo's capital, Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende said the call for a cease-fire does not go far enough.

“It's our opinion that the only interesting proposition would be to see M23 demobilized, and to see them dissolve and cease all military action. Any other proposal is unacceptable,” said Mende, Congo's minister of information.

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