About 250 South Sudanese soldiers left Goma on Friday, the latest group from an East African Community (EAC) regional force to withdraw from the strife-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after Kinshasa refused to renew its mandate.
The seven-nation EAC first deployed troops in the violence-plagued region in November 2022, at the invitation of the DRC authorities, to free areas taken by the resurgent M23 rebel group.
But the future of the deployment was thrown into doubt after President Felix Tshisekedi and local residents accused the force of cohabiting with the rebels rather than forcing them to lay down arms.
AFP reporters saw early Friday the group of South Sudanese soldiers leaving the provincial capital of North Kivu, Goma.
The soldiers took off from Goma airport around 5.20 am local time (0320 GMT), bound for Juba.
A second flight is planned for later in the morning, according to a source from the EAC.
Ugandan and Burundian soldiers should also leave in the coming weeks, the same source said, with the regional force’s withdrawal expected to be complete by January 7.
Last Sunday, two contingents of around 100 Kenyan soldiers left Goma.
Rebels from M23 (the Movement of 23 March) re-emerged in North Kivu in late 2021, seizing large swathes of the province with backing, sources say, from neighboring Rwanda, another EAC member — although Rwanda denies this.
Kenya soldiers began arriving in Goma a year later at the invitation of the DRC authorities.
All but the Burundian contingents of the East African force were later accused by Kinshasa and locals of colluding with the rebels.
Late last month, the EAC said the DRC, which is a member of the bloc, had decided not to renew the force’s mandate beyond December 8.
Kinshasa is hoping to replace the EAC soldiers with security forces from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which the DRC is also a member.
Fighting continues between M23 and the DRC army, supported by militia who call themselves “patriots.”
Numerous armed groups and other militias have been active for three decades in the east of the DRC, a legacy of the regional wars that erupted during the 1990s and 2000s.