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Congolese city remains on edge as rebel group begins pullout

Rebel fighters left the key city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday. A ‘‘neutral force’’ of soldiers from other African countries will help keep the peace.

GORAN TOMASEVIC/Reuters

Rebel fighters left the key city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday. A ‘‘neutral force’’ of soldiers from other African countries will help keep the peace.

NAIROBI — The rebel group that recently captured Goma, a strategic city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, pulled out hundreds of troops on Saturday, but Goma was still waiting to exhale.

Residents packed the streets to watch the rebels chug out of town in big trucks, with rebel soldiers belting out victory songs as they left.

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“We saw combat, and the enemy ran away,’’ the rebels cheered.

Another verse: ‘‘We’re leaving, but we’ll be back soon.’’

The rebels, called the M23, were under intense international pressure to leave Goma after inflicting a humiliating defeat on Congolese forces and setting off a national crisis with anti-government protests erupting across Congo. As much as Goma was a coveted prize — it is one of Congo’s most vital trade hubs — many rebel leaders said that holding the city and trying to administer it would have been too much trouble.

On Saturday afternoon, UN officials in Goma confirmed that the rebels were finally leaving.

Still, many of Goma’s residents were frightened about what lies ahead. Lawlessness has been increasing in the past week, with home invasions, carjackings, and killings on the rise.

“Some people are worried that the army might be even worse than the M23 and that when the army returns they will start stealing,’’ said one Goma resident who did not want to be identified because of the risk of reprisals.

Goma’s residents, like people in many other parts of Congo, have been trapped for years between marauding rebel groups that rape, pillage, and kill with complete impunity and a dysfunctional government army that often does the same.

Under a peace plan brokered by Congo’s neighbors, the M23 rebels are supposed to withdraw all their troops from Goma except for one company that will be allowed to stay at the airport along with government troops.

A ‘‘neutral force’’ composed of soldiers from other African countries will also help keep the peace in Goma, a sprawling city of several hundred thousand people — maybe a million, no one really knows.

On Saturday, Goma residents said they saw Ugandan and Tanzanian military officers in the city, possibly the vanguard of the neutral force.

The M23 group is widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, and a UN document leaked to The New York Times on Friday said that Rwandan troops had actually helped capture Goma.

Several of Rwanda’s staun­chest allies, including the United States and Britain, have cut back on aid to Rwanda because of the growing evidence that it has fomented yet another rebellion in Congo.

Under the peace deal for Goma, the Congolese government has agreed to ‘‘listen, evaluate, and resolve the legitimate grievances of M23.’’

Many analysts say that because of the weakness of the Congolese government, the M23 commanders will be given top positions in the army and that rebels will gain an even tighter grip on eastern Congo, home to gold, coltan, and other mineral riches as well as several other equally brutal armed groups.

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