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Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo - Rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo said on Tuesday they would withdraw from the eastern city of Goma if President Joseph Kabila agreed to their demands, which the Congolese government was quick to dismiss as a farce.
The deadlock threatens to prolong a crisis that regional officials had hoped they could prevent from descending into all-out war in a region dogged by nearly two decades of conflict.
The M23 rebels, who have said they want to overthrow the government in Kinshasa, captured Goma last week after Congolese soldiers withdrew and UN peacekeepers were forced to give up defending the city.
The Ugandan military, which has been coordinating talks with M23, said earlier on Tuesday that M23 leader Colonel Sultani Makenga had agreed to withdraw from Goma with no conditions.
But the political chief of M23, Jean-Marie Runiga, told reporters in Goma his forces would withdraw if Kabila held national talks, released political prisoners and dissolved an electoral commission, a body accused by Western powers of delivering Kabila a second term in 2011 in a flawed election.
“The withdrawal, yes. If Kabila agrees to our demands then we'll go quickly,” Runiga told reporters in a hotel in Goma, flanked by senior M23 officials in civilian clothes and rebels in military fatigues.
The conflicting statements indicated a quick solution to the latest insurgency in eastern Congo, which has displaced thousands of civilians, was not close.
Lambert Mende, Congo's government spokesman, quickly dismissed M23's demands.
“It's a farce, that's the word. There's been a document adopted by the region. If each day they're going to come back with new demands it becomes ridiculous. We're no longer in the realms of seriousness,” Mende told Reuters from Kinshasa.
The rebels on Tuesday showed no signs of an imminent pull-out and continued to guard strategic sites in Goma.
More than half a dozen armed M23 fighters dressed in crisp fatigues stood in front of the central bank building as UN peacekeepers in two troop carriers looked on.
“This is a sign we are in this for the long haul. M23 is digging in while the Congolese army prepares another offensive,” said Jason Stearns of independent research organisation the Rift Valley Institute. “It is difficult to imagine what the possible compromise could be between the two sides,” Stearns said.
African leaders had at the weekend called on M23 to abandon their aim of toppling the government and to withdraw from Goma. The Great Lakes heads of state also proposed that UN peacekeepers in and around the city should provide security in a neutral zone between Goma and new areas seized by M23.
Runiga also demanded the lifting of house arrest on a leading Kinshasa-based opposition member Etienne Tshisekedi as well as an inquiry into army corruption.
He said the rebels were ready to work with MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo.
Aronda Nyakayirima, Uganda's military chief, had earlier said Makenga had agreed to withdraw from Goma and the eastern city of Sake.
“We met last night and I communicated to him the decision of regional leaders reached on Saturday and he accepted to pull back his forces out of Goma and Sake and also stop any further advances southward,” Nyakayirima told Reuters in Kampala.
“He didn't put up any conditions for pulling out because he agreed that all their grievances will be resolved in the ICGLR (Great Lakes) mechanism as stipulated in the declarations of the Saturday summit (in Kampala),” he said.
In a potential further escalation, Rwanda said on Tuesday its troops clashed with Rwandan FDLR rebels who attacked three villages on its border with Congo, but a spokesman for the FDLR denied its fighters had been involved.
Rwanda has in the past used the presence of the FDLR as a justification for intervening in neighbour Congo. But the rebel group, which experts say has dwindled in strength, has not mounted a significant attack on Rwanda in years.
Congo and UN experts accuse Rwanda of backing the M23 group in eastern Congo, a charge vehemently denied by Rwandan President Paul Kagame who has long complained that Kabila's government and UN peacekeepers have not done enough to drive out the FDLR from that area. - Reuters