GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congolese government troops gave control of two key eastern towns back to the M23 rebel group to avoid jeopardizing the ongoing peace process, a spokesman for the military said Sunday.
Kiwanja and Rutshuru had been M23 strongholds since the group had taken control of them in July 2012. But following a split within the rebellion last week, the armed group had left the towns to reinforce positions against the new splinter, and another rebel group moved in. The military then secured the towns on Friday.
"We couldn't leave the population alone, and we had to secure the area to make sure there were no crimes committed," said Col. Olivier Hamuli, the military spokesman. He said they've since given control back to M23.
"Our troops left Rutshuru and Kiwanja to avoid taking a step back regarding the evolution of the negotiations in Kampala," he said, adding that they are now only one kilometer (mile) from Kiwanja.
Government forces cannot take back M23 territory as negotiations as mediations are ongoing, according to an agreement reached in November at the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) in Uganda.
"The M23 signed an agreement with the ICGLR and the Congolese government after we took Goma in November. The government troops had to leave our territory because Rutshuru and Kiwanja are in our territory,"said Col. Vianney Kazarama, the spokesman for one of the M23 factions led by Gen. Sultani Makenga.
M23 is a rebellion allegedly backed by Rwanda and Uganda. In November, after eight months of sporadic fighting against the national army, the rebels took the strategic city of Goma, but withdrew two weeks later under international pressure.
Since then, negotiations between the M23 and the government have been held in Kampala, but no serious outcome has yet been announced.
The group split on Wednesday following a dispute over leadership. The president of the movement, Jean-Marie Runiga, was dismissed by Gen. Makenga, the military leader of the movement. Runiga left with the second strongman of the M23, Gen. Baudoin Ngaruye and Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Both factions have been fighting each other since, creating a power vacuum in the M23 stronghold. Following the Congolese army handover of Rutshuru and Kiwanja to Makenga's faction, Runiga's faction issued a statement saying that the army should have given them the territory.
Runiga, in the statement, accused Makenga of being an ally of Congo's military.
The faction led by Ntaganda and Runiga, positioned on the road to Goma near Kibumba, had apparently attempted to take Goma on Sunday, but were pushed back by the U.N. peacekeeping forces, the U.N. mission in Congo said.
"We fired on Bosco Ntaganda's positions because they moved towards Goma. We told them to stop their movements but they resisted. We sent helicopters that fired on their positions. It was near Kibati," said Alexandre Essome, a spokesman for MONUSCO, the U.N. mission in Congo.
Runiga's faction could not be reached for comment on the attempt.