Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they will pull out of the eastern city of Goma in an apparent stalling of their drive to "liberate" the whole country.
The situation on the ground remained far from clear after the rebels' political and military leaders gave conflicting statements over their intentions, but U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said in New York "there were indications tonight that possibly the M23 elements were starting to withdraw."
"Of course that was already late in the evening, and that will have to be confirmed tomorrow," Ladsous told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors.
The eight-month insurgency has threatened to develop into an all-out war in a region dogged by nearly two decades of conflict that has killed more than 5 million people and is fuelled by competition over mineral resources.
The Ugandan military, which has coordinated talks with the M23 rebels, said earlier that M23 leader Colonel Sultani Makenga had agreed to a plan drawn up by regional heads of state for the rebels to leave Goma within 48 hours, with no conditions.
But the political head of M23, Jean-Marie Runiga, later told journalists in Goma they would withdraw from the city only if President Joseph Kabila agreed to their demands. The Congolese government dismissed the chances of this happening.
"There's no division, General Makenga has said that we'll withdraw, so that's what we're in the process of doing," deputy M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha told Reuters by telephone.
"If we withdraw the force, everyone leaves ... It's not contradictory (to Runiga's statement). He said we were prepared to withdraw from the town but that Kabila must listen to us."
Kabasha said the entire movement would head 20 km (12 miles) toward the town of Kibumba, directly north of the city.
Makenga confirmed the decision to pull out from Goma to Reuters by text message, without giving further details.
U.N. experts say the M23 rebels are backed by Rwanda. The rebels captured Goma last week after Congolese soldiers withdrew and U.N. peacekeepers gave up defending the city. Ladsous said the peacekeepers remained in control of the Goma airport.
Runiga had told reporters in Goma his forces would withdraw only if Kabila held national talks, released political prisoners and dissolved the electoral commission, a body accused by Western powers of delivering Kabila a second term in a flawed 2011 election.
He said Kabila's government was rotten with corruption, lamented the country's dilapidated roads and said Congo's only schools and hospitals had been left by Belgian former colonial rulers. He said any talks would have to tackle such issues.
"We are fighting to find solutions to Congo's problems. Withdrawal from Goma is not a precondition to negotiations but a result of them," Runiga had said.
NO SIGN OF PULL-OUT
The conflicting statements indicated a solution to the insurgency in eastern Congo, which has displaced 140,000 civilians according to the United Nations, was not close.
Lambert Mende, Congo's government spokesman, said the pullback was expected to take until Friday but that it was too early to say if it would definitely happen.
"We prefer to wait, these are not people who keep to their word," he told Reuters by telephone from the capital Kinshasa.
Ugandan military chief Aronda Nyakayirima told journalists in Kampala the plan specified M23 would begin its withdrawal on Tuesday. Government troops would enter Goma two days later, followed by a visit by regional defence chiefs "to evaluate the situation and find out whether all these timelines were met".
No rebel soldiers were visible in Goma on Tuesday evening.
"We haven't yet seen any significant troop movements out of the city," Hiroute Guebre Selassie, head of the UN mission in Congo MONUSCO's North Kivu office, told Reuters.
African leaders had at the weekend called on M23 to abandon their aim of toppling the government and to withdraw from Goma.
The Great Lakes heads of state also proposed that U.N. peacekeepers in and around the city should provide security in a neutral zone between Goma and new areas seized by M23.
POTENTIAL TO ESCALATE
In a potential further escalation, Rwanda said on Tuesday its troops clashed with Rwandan FDLR rebels who attacked three villages on its border with Congo.
FDLR spokesman La Forge Fils Bazeye said on Tuesday evening that his fighters had attacked Rwandan army positions on the border north of Goma.
"I want to confirm the clashes between our fighters and the Rwandan army, some of our fighters are still there, the fight continues," he told Reuters by telephone.
Rwanda has in the past used the presence of the FDLR as a justification for intervening in neighbouring Congo. But the rebel group, which experts say has dwindled in strength, has not mounted a significant attack on Rwanda in years.
Rwandan government spokeswoman and Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said they would not allow Tuesday's attack to interfere with the regional push to bring peace to eastern Congo.
"This morning's attack by the FDLR forces from their bases in DRC is clearly an attempt to take advantage of the volatile situation in eastern DRC," she said in a statement.
"We will counter any violation of Rwandan territory by the FDLR and continue to protect our borders but will not allow today's fighting to derail the ongoing regional peace process."
Congo and U.N. experts accuse Rwanda of backing the M23 group in eastern Congo, which has big reserves of gold, tin and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in making mobile phones.
That is denied by Rwandan President Paul Kagame who has long complained that Kabila's government and U.N. peacekeepers have not done enough to drive out the FDLR from eastern Congo.