Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo - Rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo kept a firm grip on Wednesday over towns captured from government forces, despite a pledge to respect a deal brokered by Uganda and withdraw.
World powers and regional neighbours are scrambling to contain the latest violence in Congo's volatile east, where political and ethnic rifts and competition for vast mineral resources are again threatening to ignite a regional war.
At a summit in the Ugandan capital Kampala at the weekend, regional presidents demanded that the M23 rebels pull out of the strategic border city of Goma.
Compliance would signal progress in efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis, although the rebels - which UN experts say are backed by neighbouring Rwanda - have given no indication they were ending their eight-month insurgency.
It appeared earlier on Wednesday as though the rebels were ready to cooperate.
“We're leaving Sake. We're leaving Masisi,” rebel military leader Sultani Makenga told Reuters, referring to positions seized from the government in the past week.
“Goma will be later... We're prepared for the return of government troops. They're going to come,” he said.
Makenga said rebel forces would withdraw about 20km from Goma, leaving 100 soldiers at the airport and allowing government troops to return to the city, as set out under the terms of the deal.
However, witnesses and residents living in areas freshly under the control of the rebellion said M23 fighters were holding onto their positions.
In the town of Sake, 25km west of Goma, young rebels smoking cigarettes and holding machineguns told Reuters they had received no orders to withdraw.
“They're still in town. They've not left. They're still in the hills and we've seen no movement of troops,” said Sake resident Isaac Kanefu, who accused the rebels of extorting illegal taxes from townspeople.
“If the army comes back it'll be better,” he said.
The rebels were also maintaining control over Mushake, a town further west in the territory of Masisi, residents said.
Ugandan military chief Aronda Nyakayirima said on Tuesday after a meeting with Makenga that M23 had agreed to leave Goma unconditionally. Defence officials from neighbouring countries are due to travel to the city on Friday to verify progress.
A rebel spokesperson said late on Wednesday that M23's fighters would leave Goma on Friday.
The rebels seized Goma on November 20 after Congolese soldiers withdrew and UN peacekeepers gave up defending the city.
In exchange for a rebel pull-out from Goma, Congo's government agreed in Kampala to listen to M23's grievances, but Congo's Information Minister Lambert Mende said on Wednesday he remained sceptical that the rebels would leave the city.
“We're waiting to see it in reality, because the M23 elements and those who support them have made us used to red-herrings. We're used to their unkept promises,” he told a press conference in the capital Kinshasa.
The rebels initially claimed to have taken up arms over what they said was the government's failure to respect a March 23, 2009 peace agreement that saw them integrated into the army.
However, they have since broadened the scope of their movement, declaring their aim to “liberate” the entire central African nation and topple President Joseph Kabila.
M23's political leader Jean Marie Runiga initially cast doubt on the Kampala deal, saying on Tuesday that a pull-out was contingent on a long list of demands, including the dissolution of the elections commission and the freeing of prisoners.
The mixed messages from Makenga and Runiga could be a sign of divisions within the movement, according to analyst Jason Stearns at independent think-tank the Rift Valley Institute.
“This is a military movement with a political wing created post facto... It's undermined internal cohesion,” he said.
Stearns believes M23 may be coming under external pressure given the storm of protest from regional powers caused by the rebel capture of Goma.
“The future of M23 depends on the diplomatic dance between donors, countries in the region and Kigali,” Stearns said.
Rwanda, which United Nations experts accuse of giving orders to the Tutsi-dominated rebels and supplying arms and recruits, has twice invaded Congo over the past two decades, sparking a conflict that has killed more than 5 million people.
It justified its interventions by the need to pursue Rwandan Hutu militias who fled into Congo after carrying out the 1994 Rwanda genocide in which 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
About 100 people gathered in rain in Goma on Wednesday to protest against the possible return of government troops, marching to UN offices there to deliver a memo.
“When the government troops were here before we had no peace. Now, as we welcomed M23, we think they'll cause even more problems than before,” protester Alain Safari said.
The conflict in eastern Congo - which has big reserves of gold, tin and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in making cellphones - has displaced 140 000 civilians this month alone, according to the United Nations.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Wednesday that dozens of war wounded, including civilian women and children, were awaiting urgent treatment in hospitals. - Reuters