Congolese rebels seek Ugandan mediation as deadline looms
Congolese rebels patrolled the streets of Goma on Monday as their military leader flew to neighbouring Uganda for talks ahead of a deadline set by regional African leaders for the group to pull out of the strategic eastern city.
The M23 rebels, who seized Goma in a rapid advance last week that raised international fears of wider regional conflict in the resource-rich region, were given by regional leaders a Monday night deadline to leave the city.
But the rebels, a largely Tutsi ethnic group, have refused to withdraw before any peace talks with the government of President Joseph Kabila, which in turn insists on a pullout before negotiating.
M23 military leader Sultani Makenga, who was hit with UN and US sanctions last week over alleged atrocities in the DRC, flew into Kampala on Monday for "military talks" with regional army chiefs, rebel spokesman Amani Kabasha told AFP.
Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga however said he was "not aware" of any invitation to Makenga.
Two wars that shook the whole of DR Congo between 1996 and 1997, and then again from 1998 to 2003, both began in the Kivu region, with Rwanda and Uganda playing active roles in both.
The UN last week issued a damning report accusing Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, of backing the rebels who it says have carried out murders, rapes and abductions in their sweep across the east.
Both countries vehemently deny the allegations.
Makenga on Sunday told the Jeune Afrique newspaper that the M23 rebels were open to leaving Goma, and claimed the group had little interest in taking the town in the first place.
"If it can bring peace to the Congo, the M23 could accept leaving," he said.
He added that rebels favour Museveni mediating in the crisis.
Kampala is an influential regional power with a powerful military, and has a long history of meddling in the DRC, including backing rebels in the 1998-2003 Congo war against president Laurent-Desire Kabila, the father of today's leader.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Sunday urged the M23 to withdraw, echoing the appeal by Kabila and the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda at a weekend Kampala summit.
However, the M23 group's political leader Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero told the Figaro newspaper Monday his group had no intention of leaving the lakeside city.
M23 fighters seized Goma, capital of North Kivu province, last Tuesday, dramatically escalating a conflict that has claimed civilian and military lives, forced tens of thousands to leave their homes and created a humanitarian crisis.
In just one week, the rebels expanded their area of control from one small corner of North Kivu to cover almost the entire province, an area twice the size of Belgium and rich in diamonds, precious metals and mineral wealth.
The group, which has a list of grievances against Kabila and his government, seized Goma with little resistance from UN peacekeepers and the regular DR Congo army, which as it fled abandoned munitions including rocket launchers with a range of up to 120 kilometres (75 miles), rebels claimed.
On Monday, several rebel fighters were seen on Goma streets, though fewer than in previous days, while taxis were back on the roads and shops were open.
Troops from the UN's peacekeeping mission MONUSCO were also on patrol. They were criticised last week for allowing rebels to take Goma, but the peacekeepers stressed they did so to avoid further bloodshed.
UN deputy secretary for humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos said last week that the conflict had prevented aid workers from getting even basic aid to badly hit areas and children were among those who had perished in the fighting.
She warned that young people were worried about sexual violence or being pressed into military service.
UN figures show some 1.6 million internally displaced people in North and South Kivu, including 285 000 newly displaced between July and September.
The African Union on Sunday joined the Kampala summit of Great Lakes countries to call on the M23 to pull back 20 kilometres from Goma.
The M23 are former rebels integrated into the army under a peace deal on March 23, 2009. They say this was not honoured by the government, leading them to mutiny this April.
Rebels also seized Sake, a strategic town at the junction of the main road south to neighbouring South Kivu province and its capital Bukavu.
Government troops unsuccessfully tried to retake the town Thursday. Since the failed operation, the area has seen no new combat.
Government soldiers were regrouped further south in the town of Minova, which was briefly reported to have fallen into rebel hands.
"Things are evolving positively," Congolese army General Francois Olenga told an AFP reporter there. "How can you have any doubt, you are here in Minova."
A panel of UN experts on DR Congo has said Rwanda not only funds and arms the M23 but also supervises ground operations.