KAMPALA Uganda's military chief said on Tuesday that the leader of the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colonel Sultani Makenga, has agreed to withdraw from the eastern cities of Goma and Sake.
African leaders called on the rebels on Saturday to abandon their aim of toppling the government and leave the city of Goma they captured last week, hoping to prevent a descent into all-out war in a region dogged by nearly two decades of conflict.
"We met last night and I communicated to him the decision of regional leaders reached on Saturday and he accepted to pull back his forces out of Goma and Sake and also stop any further advances southward," Uganda's chief of defence forces, Aronda Nyakayirima, told Reuters.
"He didn't put up any conditions for pulling out because he agreed that all their grievances will be resolved in the ICGLR (Great Lakes) mechanism as stipulated in the declarations of the Saturday summit (in Kampala)," he said.
A spokesman for the M23 rebels said he had not heard from his leader but withdrawing from Goma was not a problem.
"We don't know what Uganda discussed with our leader but what I can say is that withdrawing from Goma isn't a big problem. We can withdraw now, this evening or any time," Amani Kabasha told Reuters.
"The most important issue is that we agree with (DRC President Joseph) Kabila. As long as we agree with Kabila we can withdraw any time."
Lambert Mende, Congo's government spokesman, said he was aware Uganda had received Makenga.
"We hear that the response (to the request to pull out) is a yes but as for the time frame I am not sure. We are well used to false promises so we'll wait and see," he told Reuters.
Jean-Marie Runiga, M23's political chief, was expected to hold a news conference at 0900 GMT in Goma.
Rebel forces on Monday strengthened their positions around Goma, fanning out into hills surrounding the eastern city less than 20 km (12 miles) north of government positions in Minova, on the shores of Lake Kivu.
But Nyakayirima said the pullout should begin at midday, though it was not clear whether that referred to Kampala or Goma time, meaning 0900 or 1000 GMT.
The rebels, who have said they want to overthrow the government in Kinshasa, captured Goma after Congolese soldiers withdrew and U.N. peacekeepers were forced to give up defending the city. (Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Jonny Hogg in Goma; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Hugh Lawson)