Goma - There are signs that Congolese rebels are withdrawing from the strategic eastern city of Goma, the United Nations said on Tuesday, following a round of diplomatic efforts to prevent the conflict from spreading across the region, but Kinshasa met the pledge with caution.
The M23 rebels' rebellion has displaced tens of thousands of people and its quick advance across the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has heightened fears of yet another major conflict in the war-blighted region.
Earlier on Tuesday M23 military leader Sultani Makenga said his men would leave Goma "in three days at the latest" and pull back 20km under a deal struck in Kampala the previous day with an east African regional group.
The pullout deal was struck late on Monday in the capital of neighbouring Uganda between Makenga and regional military commanders, who will visit Goma on Friday to monitor progress of the promised withdrawal from the capital of the mineral-rich North Kivu region.
The rebels have begun transferring arms, provisions and medical supplies from Goma to the Rutshuru territory north of the city, an area along the Ugandan and Rwandan borders that has been their main stronghold since launching their uprising in April, Makenga said.
Uganda's army chief Aronda Nyakairima told reporters there that the withdrawal would be complete by midday Thursday.
The UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters in New York that the process of pulling the rebels out of the key city had apparently already begun.
"It seems that the advances have stopped," he said.
"If anything there were signs tonight that they were either getting out of Goma or getting ready to do that."
Ladsous said the withdrawal could only be confirmed by the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC on Wednesday.
M23 rebels took over Goma on Tuesday last week as they made a lightning advance through North Kivu.
Ladsous said the UN's main military advisor, General Babacar Gaye, would head for DRC and other East African countries to work out details of the withdrawal deal.
He said this would include the working of a proposed neutral zone, who controls Goma airport, which is currently in the hands of the UN mission Monusco, and how to set up a proposed international neutral force for DRC.
The rebellion erupted in April when the M23, which UN experts have said is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, broke away from the DRC army, complaining that a 2009 deal to end a previous conflict had not been fully implemented.
M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga had said earlier that the rebels would withdraw only if the Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila met a string of demands.
Monday's agreement allows them to stay in their home region of Kivu, which is believed to hold up to three-quarters of the world's reserves of coltan, a mineral used in the manufacture of many electronic products.