Congo rebels reject call to quit Goma

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Rebels in eastern Congo rejected calls from African leaders to withdraw from the city of Goma and threatened on Thursday to press on with their advance until President Joseph Kabila opens direct peace talks.

The M23 rebels, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, have said they will “liberate” all of the vast, resource-rich country after taking the provincial capital of Goma on the Rwandan border, ramping up tensions in a fragile region.
“We’ll stay in Goma waiting for negotiations,” Jean-Marie Runiga, head of the M23 rebel movement’s political arm, told Reuters in the city. “They’re going to attack us and we’re going to defend ourselves and keep on advancing.”

Rebel fighters seized the sprawling lakeside city of a million people on Tuesday after government soldiers retreated and U.N. peacekeepers gave up trying to defend it. The rebels have since taken Sake, a strategic town about 25 km (15 miles) west along a strategic highway, bolstered by army defectors.

Regional and international leaders have been scrambling to halt the fresh conflagration in the Great Lakes, a region of many colonial-era frontiers and long a tinderbox of ethnic and political conflict, fuelled by mineral deposits, including gold, diamonds and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in computers.

On Wednesday, foreign ministers from the states of the Great Lakes region demanded the rebels leave Goma and halt their advance, and Kabila – in a concession to the rebels that fell short of opening talks – promised to look into their grievances.
“I’m not confident, because I’ve already waited for three months in Kampala for talks,” Runiga said of a recent spell in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Neighboring Uganda and Rwanda had no right to make demands of M23, added the group’s political chief, who styles himself Bishop Runiga, a post he holds in several Congolese churches.

He said M23 would permit aid groups to return to Goma, after they evacuated during the fighting. Reuters correspondents in the city saw some aid workers driving in the town on Thursday.

M23 takes its name from a peace deal, signed on March 23, 2009, that was meant to bring former rebels into the national army, but which the group says the government has violated.

The group has since sought to broaden its support in Congo by tapping into popular frustrations over the government’s slow pace of reform in one of the world’s least developed and most turbulent nations.

But the effort has faced hurdles amid mounting evidence of Rwanda’s involvement in the insurgency.

Kabila’s government insists the M23 rebellion is a creation of Rwanda, which has intervened repeatedly in Congo over the past 18 years – and the claim is backed by U.N. experts who say Kigali is both commanding and supporting the insurgency in part to control the region’s minerals.

The U.N. on Wednesday defended its failed effort to prevent rebels from seizing Goma, saying its helicopters had fired hundreds of rockets at rebels but were unable to beat them back as their ranks swelled dramatically.

Runiga said M23 had the capacity to hang on to Goma, after its force was bolstered by mutinying Congolese soldiers from Kabila’s army, the FARDC.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Firstly we have a disciplined army, and also we have the FARDC soldiers who’ve joined us.
“They’re our brothers, they’ll be retrained and recycled then we’ll work with them.”