Goma, Congo -
As hundreds of Congolese army troops returned to the city of Goma Monday, rebels staked out positions just 3 kilometers (1.6 miles) away and a possible fight loomed for this city of 1 million.
The government soldiers arrived at the town's main barracks in trucks, as a crowd gathered to cheer and some elated women rushed forward to kiss the soldiers. Their return is a concrete sign that President Joseph Kabila's government may regain control of this key, provincial capital, after it fell to rebels widely believed to be backed by Rwanda two weeks ago.
The strategic city may still be the site of another fight, however, as the M23 rebels remain in tactical positions in the hills above Goma. They say they are waiting for the government to respond to their demands before deciding whether or not to try to retake the city.
After a nearly two-week occupation, the M23 rebels agreed to leave Goma over the weekend under intense international pressure, including fresh sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. Their commanders said they would retreat to 20 kilometers (12
miles) outside the city on the condition that Congo's government begins negotiations with them no later than 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon. They are threatening to retake the city if the government fails to meet their demands.
As the deadline expired, journalists saw a column of rebel fighters walking to elevated positions overlooking the city, no more than a few kilometers outside the Goma city limit. Others were building a tent on a western hill. Some in groups of three took positions under the shade of trees along the road leading north from Goma.
“We gave Kinshasa a 48-hour deadline, and we are now waiting for these 48 hours to expire,” said rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama, when reached by telephone shortly before the deadline passed. “You should call Congo and ask them what they plan to do. They have not yet contacted us. And we are waiting to see what happens, before pronouncing ourselves.”
Despite the rebels' retreat from Goma, which was a prerequisite set by the Congolese government for negotiations, Congo's president has not yet made clear if the government will negotiate. On Sunday, government spokesman Lambert Mende said the president would listen to M23's grievances and then give them an answer.
On Monday as the ultimatum neared its end, Mende said he had nothing to say on the matter.
In recent weeks, the enormous, jungle-covered nation of Congo, whose capital is over 1 000 miles away from this provincial eastern city, inched closer to war its smaller, but more developed neighbor, Rwanda, which is accused of arming the M23 rebels, as well as of sending soldiers across the border.
The rebels claim to be fighting for the better implementation of a March 23, 2009 peace accord, which saw them integrated into the national army. Analysts, including a United Nations Group of Experts, say that the real reason for the rebellion is Rwanda's desire to annex territory in the mineral-rich mountains at the border between the two countries.
Congo's Interior Minister Richard Muyej, speaking to reporters in Goma, said that they are working hard to fill the power vacuum that was left by the rebels' departure.
“We shall work very hard to re-establish the authority of the state as fast as possible.”
Residents whose lives were upended two weeks ago when rebels invaded the town on Nov. 20, tried their best to go about their lives.
Most shops had re-opened, as the city of 1 million was slowly trying to get back to normal despite uncertainty about what will happen in coming hours. A woman selling secondhand clothes at the Virunga market said she had no choice.
“We're not going to wait forever, are we?” said Anette Murkendiwa. “I need to feed my children.” -