Congo army digs in against rebel advance as African leaders meet
Congo's army reinforced its positions south of the city of Goma on Saturday to halt a rebel advance, as African leaders met in Uganda to try to end the deepening crisis in an area long plagued by ethnic and political conflict.
Fighters from the M23 group, widely thought to be backed by neighbouring Rwanda, were trying to push south along Lake Kivu near the eastern rebel stronghold of Goma on the Rwandan border.
Regional and international leaders are scrambling to halt the latest flare-up in the Great Lakes area, fuelled by a mix of local and regional politics, ethnic rifts and competition for big reserves of gold, tin and coltan.
In the capital, Kinshasa, authorites banned protests, citing the need to keep order in what Congo's national chief of police, Charles Bisengimana, called "undeclared state of war".
Fractured government forces were reinforcing positions on the shores of Lake Kivu, an army spokesman told Reuters, in a bid to win back territory lost this week as the rebels pushed out of Goma, a city of one million people.
"Our objective is to retake territory we've lost," said Congo army (FARDC) spoksesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli.
Goma is a regional headquarters of a U.N. force, known as MONUSCO, tasked with assisting government troops to protect civilians, but peacekeepers largely looked on once the army fled and the city fell. France has called MONUSCO's failure "absurd".
The rebels have threatened to march on Kinshasa and "liberate" the rest of the central African nation, and failed attempts at a counter offensive this week forced FARDC to pull back to the lakeside town of Minova, leaving a trail of corpses and abandoned equipment in their wake.
"We are going to defend Minova, but we'll also try to push back the rebels," Hamuli said. Troop reinforcements were being sent to the front lines, he said.
M23 forces moved south through the hills towards Minova, in a strategic position on the road to Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, and a rebel spokesman said they had come within 12 km (7-1/2 miles) of the town before halting their advance.
The rebels have said that Bukavu is their next objective and have vowed to sweep across the vast nation Kinshasa if Congolese President Joseph Kabila does not agree to talks.
M23 LEADER IN KAMPALA
The head of M23's political arm was also in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, but it was not clear whether he would hold direct talks with Kabila.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame is not attending the negotiations and is represented by Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo. Rwanda has vigorously denied charges it is supporting the rebellion.
As commanders on the ground tried to cobble together a force capable of holding back the rebels, Kabila appointed a new interim head of ground forces late on Friday.
General Francois Olenga Tete takes over from former army boss General Gabriel Amisi, who was suspended on Thursday amid charges he had sold arms to other eastern rebels.
Olenge rose through the ranks of a rebellion led by Kabila's father and former president Laurent Kabila.
A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described him as a political appointee with no military background, a violent streak and "reputed to be corrupt".
"The question is not (that it will make a big difference to the army), it was that the post was empty and it needed to be filled," Information Minister Lambert Mende said late on Friday. (Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kampala; Writing by Joe Bavier)