Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) said it was withdrawing its Tutsi fighters 25 miles back from two fronts in North Kivu province to create zones separating them and government troops. The rebels also said they would allow the passage of humanitarian aid into hard-hit areas, the BBC reported.
The CNDP said the objective of the pullback was to help efforts by a United Nations envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, to end weeks of fighting that have driven a quarter of a million people from their homes and triggered a humanitarian emergency.
A rebel statement said the "separation zones" on the Kanyabayonga-Nyanzale and Kabasha-Kiwanja fronts should be occupied by U.N. peacekeepers, Reuters reported. CNDP and government commanders would meet on Wednesday to discuss setting up the zones.
The U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo said it was checking whether the announced rebel pullback was actually taking place on the ground. "Separation of forces would be a good step," U.N. military spokesman Lt.-Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich told Reuters.
The pullback came after Congolese President Joseph Kabila fired his army chief, Gen. Dieudonne Kayembe, over a series of battleground defeats, and France called on the U.N. Security Council for a surge of peacekeeping forces to protect tens of thousands of displaced Congolese people.
Kabila named as his new armed forces head the navy commander Gen. Didier Etumba, a former military intelligence chief.
Before the CNDP's announcement of a pullback, Kabila's government and the U.N. had said Nkunda was not respecting a ceasefire he had promised U.N. envoy Obasanjo he would keep. Nkunda and his commanders had accused the army of "provocation."
Nkunda's rebels announced the withdrawal as demoralized government troops clashed with their own local militia allies who tried to make them stand and resist the rebel advance.
A local pro-government militia fought the retreating soldiers at Kirumba and Kayna on Tuesday with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades. Militia leaders said they tried to force the army troops back into battle against the rebels.
"These soldiers are cowards. They just flee and then rape and pillage in the cities," said Gen. Sikuli Lafontaine, leader of the Pareco Mai-Mai militia, according to Reuters. Local residents said they saw the bodies of soldiers and militiamen.
Recent fighting has brought Nkunda's forces to 12 miles from Kanyabayonga, a town of 50,000 and strategic hub for most of the north of the disputed Nord-Kivu province. The town was the scene of an armed clash Tuesday in what a pro-government militia said was a "friendly fire" incident with government forces.
Residents said the army soldiers unleashed a fresh wave of looting on Sunday, taking household goods, cattle as well as motorcycles and bicycles. Some women alleged they had been gang-raped.
Several homes in the town, which was practically deserted on Tuesday except for some people who had come to forage for food, were looted and many brick houses burnt. Several front doors bore the marks of forced entry.
"I fled to the bush on Friday but I was chased out of there by the army," a 24-year-woman who identified herself as Olivia told the Agence France-Presse. "After arriving here today I heard gunshots. I don't know where to turn."
The other flashpoint town of Kayna was calm on Tuesday afternoon with soldiers patrolling the streets and locals loading their belongings on to waiting trucks, an AFP journalist reported.
As aid workers struggle to help hundreds of thousands of refugees in North Kivu, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to reinforce U.N. Congo peacekeepers.
U.N. diplomats said on Monday the Council hoped to vote this week on a French-drafted resolution that would add 3,000 extra troops and police to the 17,000-strong U.N. force in Congo, which is already the biggest of its kind in the world.
The draft calls for a temporary increase in the size of the U.N. mission's "authorized military strength by up to 2,785 military personnel, and the strength of its formed police unit by up to 300 personnel."
It would authorize the deployment of those additional personnel until Dec. 31, when the mandate of the U.N. mission comes up for renewal.
The force, in place since 2001, has 17,000 soldiers, including some 5,000 in eastern Congo, where fighting has intensified in recent weeks. This force has been criticized by aid agencies and Congo's government for repeatedly failing to protect civilians from attacking rebels and ill-disciplined government soldiers.