"Since late yesterday evening we have seen them begin to withdraw," Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, military spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo (MONUC) told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "We have been patrolling and monitoring since this morning."
Rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) has routed the Congolese army and seized control of territory in the eastern North Kivu province in recent weeks.
However, on Tuesday the CNDP said it had decided to "immediately and unilaterally" withdraw its troops a distance of 40 kilometres on the Kanyabayonga-Nyanzale and Kabasha-Kiwanja fronts in North Kivu to show its commitment to peace.
"It is a question of creating zones of separation which will be occupied only by (UN peacekeeping force in DR Congo) MONUC to the exclusion of other forces," the group said in a statement on its website.
However, MONUC is overstretched and the head of the mission Alan Doss has called for more troops. France on Monday presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling for 3,000 more soldiers. The motion is expected to go the vote next week.
Dietrich said that MONUC had not yet officially responded to the request to patrol the separation zones and that the details of how they would work needed to be hammered out.
"Maybe we won't have enough troops immediately (to patrol the zone)...our helicopters will overfly the zone, but we probably won't be in a position to stop other armed groups from coming in," Dietrich said.
Aid agencies say that renewed fighting between the CNDP and government forces has displaced at least 250,000 people since late August, creating a humanitarian emergency.
It has been difficult to deliver food to civilians caught behind rebel lines due to the security situation, but the buffer zone should ease the movement of aid convoys.
The CNDP withdrawal comes after Nkunda Sunday told UN peace envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, that he would stick to a ceasefire and support a UN-backed peace process.
Nkunda called a ceasefire almost three weeks ago as his troops were on the verge of taking Goma, the capital of North Kivu, but fighting has continued. Some of the worst clashes in a week took place as Nkunda and Obasanjo met.
The rebel general has warned that unless the government talks to him, his forces - believed to number between 4,000 and 6,000 - will brush aside the Congolese army and march on the capital Kinshasa.
He repeated the claim in an interview with German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, published Wednesday, and said the government had failed the nation and was "selling out the country to the Chinese" and cooperating with criminals.
Both Nkunda's troops and government forces have been accused of looting, murdering and raping as chaos grips the east of the country, but Nkunda rebuffed criticism of atrocities committed by his forces.
"I cannot rule out that civilians sometimes get killed. Perhaps they get caught in the crossfire," he said.
The DR Congo government has to date refused to talk with Nkunda, calling him a war criminal.
The general was left out of talks in Nairobi on November 7, which were attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
However, Obasanjo said he hopes to broker talks between Kabila and Nkunda in the coming weeks.
There are fears that the fighting could reignite the 1998-2003 war, which sucked in many other nations, including Angola, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
More than 5 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the five-year conflict in the resource-rich nation, most of them from hunger and disease.
The DR Congo accuses Rwanda of backing Nkunda, who says he is fighting to protect Tutsis from Hutu militia.
The armed Hutu groups were implicated in the 1994 massacres in Rwanda, when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The Hutus fled to DR Congo after Tutsis forces led by Kagame seized power.
However, many observers say that the ethnic dimension is merely a pretext for various militia to seize control of land rich in gold, tin and coltan, which is widely used in electronic devices. dpa ml jbp sc
- Deutsche Presse Agentur
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