M23 lets deadline pass, refuses to pull back forces

Melanie Gouby and Rukmini Callimachi / The Associated Press /

GOMA, Congo — Rebels widely believed to be backed by Rwanda and Uganda held their positions in this key eastern Congolese city that they seized last week, letting a midnight deadline for their withdrawal expire in the early hours today.

Trucks loaded with fighters belonging to the eight-month-old M23 rebel group patrolled the empty streets of this regional capital, as the ultimatum issued by the regional bloc representing nations in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa came to an end. Earlier in the day, the rebels announced that they plan to move their headquarters to this city of 1 million later this week, another sign that they do not intend to respect the demands of mediators.

For the first time since the fall of Goma eight days ago, the Congolese government acknowledged that it had entered talks with the rebels who handed Congo’s military its most humiliating defeat since Goma was last overrun by fighters nearly a decade ago. The two sides were meeting in Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda. On Monday, the head of the M23 rebels confirmed that he was en route to Uganda to join in the negotiations.

“We are still waiting to hear about the outcome of the meetings in Kampala. We should receive a document about it tomorrow. The president (of the M23) came back this evening. But given that we do not know what is asked of us we did not move out of our positions,” said Bertrand Bisimwa, spokesman for M23’s political branch.

As the deadline loomed, the Congolese military appeared to be regrouping in the town of Minova, 60 kilometers (36 miles) to the south, but they appeared disorganized and not in position to launch an immediate assault on Goma. It has left residents on tenterhooks, worrying that they will be caught in the crossfire between rebel and government forces.

Congolese Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo confirmed that President Joseph Kabila had met in recent days with the rebels in Kampala. He said that the government is leaning toward “the avenue of dialogue and peace,” suggesting that it is unlikely that the military will try to take Goma by force if the ultimatum is not respected.

“Any action to take back the city of Goma by force will without doubt result in enormous human loss,” said Matata Ponyo in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday. “President Kabila is giving priority to the road that will lead to the least loss,” he said. But he added: “I think (the rebels) will abide by it (the ultimatum).”

The deadline was issued by the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region on Saturday and gave the M23 rebels two days to retreat to 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Goma. It expired at midnight on Monday night.

The regional group is attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting, but it did not threaten any consequences if the rebels don’t depart. Uganda and Rwanda belong to the group and they are hardly neutral. Both countries back the rebels, according to a U.N. report released last week, and they would be unlikely to go to war with M23 over the seizure of Goma.

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