Goma • Government regroups as residents try to find a safe place.
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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 of Tuesday.
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, 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 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.
Residents fear that if the Congo army attempts to regain Goma, there will be bitter fighting.
"I am worried the fighting will come back to Goma soon if the army attacks again. Last week, we were so scared. I don't want to go through that again," said Amani Zaliwa, a Goma resident.
In the hours before the midnight ultimatum, armed M23 rebels could be seen driving slowly in a Land Cruiser past United Nations troops stationed at traffic circles in downtown Goma. Others carried out foot patrols on the main arteries. The U.N., which has hundreds of peacekeeping troops stationed in Goma, did little to halt the rebels' advance into the city a week ago, saying that the U.N. mandate did not allow them to engage the fighters.
Tens of thousands of Congolese have fled to refugee camps for safety. Aid organizations struggled to provide them with food and supplies. When a rainstorm hit the Munguna-3 camp, about 7 miles south of Goma, children held out their hands to catch the water and drink it. They were quickly imitated by adults.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. The rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.
Matata Ponyo said that the Congolese president agreed to meet with the rebels in order to hear their demands and in a good faith effort to avoid bloodshed. In the early months of the rebellion, the M23 said that the Congolese government had not paid them well, and had discriminated against people from the Tutsi ethnicity, which makes up the bulk of their ranks. A U.N. report released last week, however, said that the rebels were backed by Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, and most likely were fighting for a greater share of Congo's mineral riches.
Matata Ponyo said that things like greater pay are on the table, but Congo's territorial integrity is off limits.
"These are borders that were drawn in Berlin in 1885. More than 100 years have passed no. It's not negotiable," he said.