KAMPALA, Uganda – Where do you go if you want to talk to a negotiator from Congo's newest rebel group? You can try their office headquarters in Uganda's capital city.
The rebel group M23, which has been tearing through eastern Congo in recent days, has an office in Kampala, where negotiations for the rebels to pull out of the eastern Congo city of Goma took place over the last week. Rene Abandi, M23's head of external relations, is based in Kampala. He said M23 is happy with Uganda's role as a mediator and that Kampala is their venue of choice.
So influential is Uganda thought to be with M23 that after the rebels' capture of Goma, India's embassy in Uganda sought assurances from Uganda that Indians within the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo would not be hurt.
"The Indians called us for help," a Ugandan diplomat who has been involved in the Congo talks said. He insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "They wanted protection for (Indian) troops."
M23 bosses are comfortable in Uganda, coming and going as they wish, unafraid of arrest. Last week, M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga was airlifted to Uganda for his first meeting with Congolese President Joseph Kabila, and then on Monday night the military chief of the rebels, Gen. Sultani Makenga, who is now the subject of a travel ban under U.N. sanctions, arrived in Uganda for the meeting in which he agreed to withdraw from Goma.
Ugandan army spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye said Makenga was welcome in Uganda. Kulayigye said: "How can dialogue be on if there's a travel ban on one of the parties?"
By M23's own account, Kabila and Runiga clashed repeatedly in the meeting at Uganda's state house, exchanging accusations until Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called both camps to order.
Okello Oryem, Uganda's deputy minister of foreign affairs, said the rebels wanted "assurance" from Museveni that their demands would be taken seriously after they left Goma.
Long before the rebels occupied Goma, M23 representatives had been meeting in Uganda with the country's defense minister, Crispus Kiyonga, who says Congo's government was aware of these meetings and that Congolese officials attended some. The rebels' presence in Uganda has fed the impression that M23 finds support in Uganda. A report from a group of U.N. experts says the rebels freely operate in Uganda.
M23 is a group of hundreds of soldiers, mostly of Rwandan Tutsi origin, who deserted the Congolese army in April after accusing the Congolese government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army. In eastern Congo, while they are popular with some villagers who see them as more reliable than the far-away government in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, they are also regarded as a foreign army, backed primarily by Rwanda and, to a lesser extent, by Uganda.