(AP) Rebels allegedly backed by Rwanda and Uganda stepped up their patrols Monday of this key eastern Congo city that they seized last week, even as a midnight deadline issued by a regional bloc for them to withdraw loomed.
The M23 rebels said Monday they plan to move their headquarters to this city of 1 million later this week, another sign that they do not intend to leave by midnight. Underscoring the chaotic situation, armed rebels guarded the Central Bank of Congo while United Nations peacekeepers stood watch over a gas station. Many shops closed early on Monday and few students attended reopened schools.
The Congolese military, which suffered a humiliating defeat when it lost Goma last week, was regrouping in the town of Minova, 60 kilometers (36 miles) to the south, but they appeared disorganized and not in position to launch an immediate assault on Goma.
The deadline was issued by the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region on Saturday in Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda. The regional group is attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting and did not threaten any consequences if the rebels don't depart. Rwanda and Uganda belong to the group but they are hardly neutral. Both countries back the rebels, according to a U.N. report released on Wednesday, and they would be unlikely to go to war with M23 over the seizure of Goma.
M23's military chief would not indicate whether his fighters planned to respect the withdrawal time limit. Reached by telephone at an undisclosed location, he said he was on his way to Kampala for talks.
We will talk about all of this in coming hours, said Gen. Sultani Makenga.
Residents say fear that if the Congo army attempts to regain Goma, there will be bitter fighting.
I am worried the fighting will come back to Goma soon if the army attacks again. Last week, we were so scared. I don't want to go through that again, said Amani Zaliwa, a Goma resident.
The M23, created only eight months ago, will move its administration offices on Thursday into what had been the provincial governor's offices, Bertrand Bisimwa, the M23 political spokesman, told The Associated Press.
In downtown Goma, armed M23 rebels drove slowly in a Land Cruiser past United Nations troops stationed at traffic circles. Others carried out foot patrols on the main arteries. The U.N., which has hundreds of peacekeeping troops stationed in Goma, did not do anything to halt the rebels' advance into the city a week ago, saying that the U.N. mandate did not allow them to engage the fighters.
On Monday, a U.N. transport helicopter buzzed above the shores of this lakeside city, which features low-slung buildings with corrugated tin roofs. For the first time since the rebels took the city, schools reopened Monday, though turnout was low. At one Goma school, only 50 out of 1,400 enrolled students showed up.
Tens of thousands of Congolese have fled to refugee camps for safety from the fighting. The U.N. and aid organizations struggled to provide them with food and supplies. When a rainstorm hit the Munguna 3 camp, about 7 miles (11 kilometers) south of Goma, children held out their hands to catch the water and drink it. They were quickly imitated by adults.
Over the weekend in Minova, pickup trucks packed with Congolese army soldiers armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sped through the town. Others walked the streets, looking for food. Some were even selling cigarettes on the side of the road, testimony to the poor pay that government troops receive.
In Minova, Congo Gen. Francois Olenga, who was recently named head of the Congolese army's ground troops, held meetings with area commanders.
The country is in danger. We cannot defend our country with traitors, Olenga told The Associated Press.
Talks at ending the conflict appeared to be stalled.
M23 soldiers as well as Congolese officials, including President Joseph Kabila, traveled to Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni was heading the mediation effort under the banner of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga said he was also involved.
Rene Abandi, M23's head of external relations, said M23 representatives met with the Congolese president in a tense, two-hour meeting attended by Museveni. The Congolese government, however, denied that it has had any direct negotiations with the M23. Government spokesman Lambert Mende said on Monday that there will be no talks with the rebels until they leave Goma.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then the rebels have occupied vast swaths of territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo. The rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda and, Africa chief photographer Jerome Delay in Minova, Congo, contributed to this report.