People dance to celebrate government army FARDC soldiers' return to Goma.

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo -

With rebels close by and suspected of preparing for further conflict and mediators accused of not being neutral, residents of Goma, a key town in eastern DR Congo, are sceptical about peace talks.

The mining hub was occupied on November 20 for 11 days by the M23 fighters, who have pulled out of Goma and on Sunday began talks with the Kinshasa government under international pressure in the Ugandan capital.

“The real victims of the crisis are not involved,” said Jean Paul Lumbulumbu, a lawyer in the capital of North Kivu province. “People coming from Kinshasa are turning up in Kampala to talk about the war in Goma and (the) Rutshuru (region) without really knowing what's going on with M23.”

The talks involve a delegation of the Democratic Republic of Congo's government, led by Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda and including members of parliament, and a team from the mainly Tutsi rebel force which was expected to present wide-ranging demands.

M23 emerged out of a previous rebel force which was integrated into the DR Congo army under a peace pact signed on March 23, 2009. They mutinied last April, claiming mistreatment and the failure of the Kinshasa government to implement the accord.

“I put my right hand on my chest and say that I don't see these talks in Kampala succeeding,” said Kambale Lwanga Chernozem, the provincial secretary of the National Union of Workers of the Congo in North Kivu.

“It is difficult to find the way to a solution even if one uses the most intelligent mediators in the world because both sides will want to stand by their position and that leads to a sacrifice of the population,” he added.

The provincial governor, Julien Pakulu, said that he did not want to attend the “preliminary” talks in Kampala. “I'm first stabilising the chief town in the province and its surroundings.”

Relief organisations working on the scene estimate that about 138,000 people were displaced by the fighting in recent weeks around Goma. According to the UNICEF, since the battles started school has been disrupted for 240,000 pupils.

“I ask (the negotiators) to consider the interest of the population because since wars started in the east, the people have been impoverished beyond comparison,” Chernozem said.

'M23 is preparing for war'

UN experts have accused two neighbouring countries of backing M23 and having supported the capture of Goma last month, which Kigali and Kampala both deny.

“The current position of Rwanda and Uganda is not reassuring,” Chernozem said. “How can they be mediators in a conflict they are firing up?”

Local officials claim M23 are gearing up for more battles. Omar Kavota, the vice-president of the civil society movement, said the rebels would infiltrate from the north of Goma and around the airport, planning to cut off the road leading to the city of Sake.

“M23 is preparing for war and clearly sidelining these talks taking place in Kampala,” Kavota charged in a statement.

M23 used the Sake road to reach Goma and then leave the town after countries in the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) urged the movement to pull out in exchange for direct talks with Kinshasa.

According to the ICGLR, the rebels should return to the positions they held before their last offensive, about 20

kilometres (12 miles) from Goma. However, M23 stopped at the gates of the city, taking up positions about three kilometres distant, on the two hills overlooking the airport. They are close to a base of UN peacekeeping troops at Munigi.

“They're not far away,” the military spokesman of the UN mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO), Colonel Prosper Basse, told AFP.

On Sunday, Basse said that aerial reconnaissance by UN helicopters confirmed that M23 had not withdrawn to their initial positions. “This has been brought to the attention of the joint verification mission set up by the ICGLR,” he added.

The UN military presence in Goma has been reinforced, especially at the airport. UN troops are patrolling “day and night in cooperation with the Congolese national police,” Basse said. - Sapa-AFP