GOMA, Congo (AP) — This Congolese city recently seized by rebels was tense Monday, as residents waited to see if the fighters will abide by a midnight deadline to withdraw from Goma, a week after taking the strategic regional capital in a humiliating defeat for the Congolese army.
A regional group attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting issued the ultimatum on Saturday in the capital of neighboring Uganda, saying that they give the M23 rebels two days to withdraw no less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Goma.
The deadline expires Monday at midnight, according to the ultimatum issued by the regional bloc, the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region.
The military chief of the M23 rebels would not indicate whether his fighters planned to respect the withdrawal time limit. Reached by telephone at an undisclosed location, he said he was on his way to Kampala for talks.
"I’ll know more about what is going on once I arrive (in Kampala). I am now on the road to get there," said Gen. Sultani Makenga, the military leader of the eight-month-old rebel group. "We will talk about all of this in coming hours."
In downtown Goma, a city of around 1 million which is a major population center as well as a key crossroads, rebel fighters appeared to be increasing their patrols.
A dozen armed M23 rebels were seen patrolling the city in a slow moving Land Cruiser, driving past United Nations troops stationed at traffic circles. Others could be seen on foot patrols on the main arteries. The U.N., which has hundreds of troops stationed in Goma, did not do anything 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.
On Monday, a U.N. transport helicopter could be seen buzzing above the shores of this lakeside town. For the first time since the rebels took the city, schools reopened, though turnout was dismal. At one Goma school, only 50 out of 1,400 enrolled students showed up.
The Congolese military, meanwhile, was regrouping in the town of Minova, located around 60 kilometers (36 miles) south of Goma.
Over the weekend, pickup trucks packed with Congolese army soldiers armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sped through the town. Others walked the streets, looking for food. Some were even selling cigarettes on the side of the road, testimony to the poor pay that government troops receive.
In Minova, Congo Gen. Francois Olenga, who was recently named head of the Congolese army’s ground troops, held meetings with area commanders.
"The country is in danger. We cannot defend our country with traitors," Olenga told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, talks at ending the conflict appeared to be stalled.
M23 soldiers as well as Congolese officials, including President Joseph Kabila, traveled to neighboring Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni is heading the mediation effort, under the banner of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region.
Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga said he was mediating to help both sides reach a settlement. But Uganda can hardly claim to be totally neutral: Both Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, according to a U.N. report released on Wednesday.
Rene Abandi, M23’s head of external relations, said M23 representatives met with the Congolese president in a tense, two-hour meeting attended by Museveni. The Congolese government, however, denied that it has had any direct negotiations with the M23. Government spokesman Lambert Mende said on Monday that there will be no talks with the rebels until they leave Goma.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then the rebels have occupied vast swaths of territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo. The rebels accuse Congo’s government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda and, Africa chief photographer Jerome Delay in Minova, Congo, contributed to this report.