After two-and-a-half-years of war, there is renewed hope for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Early on Wednesday, Rwandan troops pulled back from their positions around Pweto, the front line Congolese town they had been stationed in, marking the first major withdrawal of troops since the war began.
Five U-N military observers were monitoring the pullout as agreed under the Lusaka peace plan reached last year.
Karenzi Karake, a colonel in the Rwandan army, said about 3-thousand troops were leaving the region in support of the peace process and that it was a goodwill gesture which Rwanda hopes will bring an appropriate response from the Congolese government.
Troops began to leave their positions at midnight local time (2100 GMT) in order to pack before the five-day trip by convoy to Pepa, 200 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Pweto.
Karake said control of the town will be turned over to the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a Rwandan-backed Congolese rebel group.
But he added that if government troops, or their allies, try to enter Pweto, his troops will return in force.
Congolese rebels took up arms against former President Laurent Kabila in August 1998, accusing him of corruption and fostering ethnic hatred.
Rwanda and Uganda backed the Congolese rebels, partly as a way of working against the Congo-backed Rwandan and Ugandan rebels attacking their home countries.
In opposition to the rebels, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia also joined the war to help Kabila.
Since then, the foreign armies have done most of the fighting and have divided the country.
The Organization of African Unity and the United Nations managed to hammer out a peace agreement in Lusaka, Zambia in July 1999.
The accord calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops, with U-N peacekeepers establishing a buffer zone between the government troops and the rebels.
The agreement then calls for a national debate on the future of the country, a new constitution and a new government.
However, the former leader of the Congo, President Laurent Kabila, blocked the deployment of U-N troops in government-held areas and continued to bomb rebel positions.
Rwanda retaliated by capturing Pweto in November.
Kabila was assassinated in January, leaving his son in power and creating an opportunity to restart the peace process.
President Joseph Kabila quickly agreed to fully implement the peace accords and the warring sides recently committed to begin troops withdrawals by March 15, a deadline set by the U-N Security Council.
The Rwandan withdrawal from Pweto, a medium-sized town on the northern shore of Lake Mweru, marks the most significant peace move thus far.
But Rwandan President Paul Kagame has repeatedly said a complete withdrawal of Rwandan troops from Congo will come only when Rwandan Hutu rebels, many of whom were responsible for the 1994 genocide that left more than 500-thousand people dead, are disarmed and no longer pose a threat to Rwanda.
“They are after the government of Rwanda to declare that it wanted to unilaterally pull out of Pweto for this does a distance of 200 kilometers as a gesture of goodwill and in order to support the peace process.”
SUPER CAPTION: Karenzi Karake, Colonel Rwandan Army
“In order to see the Rwandan withdrawal from Pweto, as you know this has been a hotly contested area over the last couple of months and the Rwandan offer to withdrawal form Pweto is one in which we consider and hope will be an important point in the beginning of this peace process.”
SUPER CAPTION: Simon Ciaraffi, UN Observer
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