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Foreign forces begin pullback from Congo war

On the day all sides in the Congo war were to begin pulling back from front lines, several hundred Ugandan soldiers assembled on the steamy airport tarmac here, singing and cheering. In two years, they had penetrated as far into Congo as any invader, and now they were preparing to go home.

"When we withdraw this battalion, about 70 percent of our troops will be out of Congo," said Brig. Edward Katumba, head of Ugandan forces in Congo.

The Ugandan withdrawal, like a pullback by Rwandan forces two weeks ago, is technically independent of a formal peace plan aimed at ending the 2{-year Congo conflict. But it reflects the widespread optimism all parties in the war say they've clung to since Congolese President Laurent Kabila _ the ruler both Uganda and Rwanda were trying to oust _ was killed two months ago.

Kabila's son and successor, Joseph, has revived the peace accord signed in 1999 in Lusaka, Zambia. The agreement is as complex as the war, which involves six foreign armies, two rebel groups and numerous militias.

But it begins with a cease-fire that, with the exception of a firefight on a river south of here this month, has essentially held since Kabila's assassination. The United Nations has agreed to send observers to report on adherence to the cease-fire.

The next step is for all armies to pull back nine miles from their front lines. It was unclear Thursday whether the Congolese government and its allies _ Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia _ have begun to pull back as promised.

But here in remote northwestern Congo, a mix of rain forest and rolling plains, the leader of the Congolese Liberation Front said his rebels had already pulled back.

"The last unit moved two days ago," Jean Pierre Bemba said Thursday. "The issue, in our view, is the inter-Congolese dialogue, unification of the country and a new political order in Congo."

The other main rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, is sponsored by Rwanda and holds Congo's southeastern quarter.