GOMA, DR Congo, Nov 27 – The Democratic Republic of Congo’s army chief threatened Monday to stage a counter-attack against rebels controlling the key eastern city of Goma as they defiantly stared down a deadline to leave.
The M23 rebels, army mutineers whose campaign has sown fears of wider conflict in the chronically unstable region, were still patrolling Goma as evening fell, showing no sign of flinching in the face of a deadline set by regional leaders to pull out by Monday night.
General Francois Olenga told the rebels to get out of the North Kivu province capital by Tuesday or face an onslaught from their former colleagues in the regular army.
“We will do our work and restore the state’s authority” if the rebels fail to meet the deadline, Olenga told AFP.
“The whole Congolese population is against aggression and that’s enough for us, that gives us the morale to counter-attack.”
The ultimatum from the army’s top general — who travelled to the eastern town of Minova, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from rebel positions, to inspect his troops Monday — came as M23 leaders held talks in Uganda aimed at easing the crisis.
The leader of M23’s political wing, Jean-Marie Runiga, returned to eastern DR Congo Monday after spending several days in Kampala for the talks, which included his first meeting with Congolese President Joseph Kabila.
The M23’s military leader, Sultani Makenga — who was hit with UN and US sanctions last week over alleged atrocities committed in DR Congo — was also expected in the Ugandan capital late Monday or early Tuesday for talks with regional army chiefs, said Uganda’s army chief, Aronda Nyakairima.
The M23 was founded by former fighters in an ethnic-Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 1999 peace deal they claim was never fully implemented.
They mutinied in April and seized Goma last week in a rapid advance that the army proved unable to stop despite getting backing from United Nations peacekeepers who deployed attack helicopters in a bid to hold back the M23.
At a summit Saturday in Kampala, regional heads of state gave the rebels 48 hours to withdraw to at least 20 kilometres outside Goma, and also called on the DR Congo government to take steps to resolve the rebels’ “legitimate grievances”.
But the rebels have refused to withdraw before holding direct talks with the government, which has in turn refused to negotiate without a withdrawal.
— Civilian toll —
Two wars that shook DR Congo between 1996 and 1997, and then again from 1998 to 2003, both began in the Kivu region, with Rwanda and Uganda playing active roles.
The UN last week issued a damning report accusing Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, of backing the rebels, who it says have murdered, raped and kidnapped civilians in their sweep across the east.
Both countries deny the allegations.