Kenyan troops flew out of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, marking the start of the withdrawal of a regional force after Kinshasa did not renew its mandate to help fight M23 rebels.
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has repeatedly criticized the East African Community force since its deployment in Nov. 2022 for failing to enforce the withdrawal of the M23, a rebel group claiming to represent the interests of ethnic Tutsis.
The presidency announced it would not be renewing its mandate after an EAC summit in late November.
With the mandate due to expire on Dec. 8, Kenyan soldiers were seen lining up on Sunday to board two planes on the tarmac of the airport in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, a Reuters reporter said.
A different force from the Southern African Development Community is due to replace the EAC troops, but the date of its arrival and the length of its mandate have not been announced.
The strategic reshuffling highlights the difficulty of stabilizing the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, where Congo declared a state of siege two years ago to address worsening militia violence.
Clashes with the M23 rebels have moved closer to Goma in recent weeks, deepening concerns the insecurity could derail presidential, legislative, and regional elections on Dec. 20.
Conflict has simmered and periodically flared up since the end of two regional wars between 1996 and 2003. Recent escalations in the bloodshed have pushed the number of people displaced within Congo to a record 6.9 million people, mostly in the east, according to the International Organization for Migration.