Congo army troops return to Goma as rebels remain close

Dec. 3, 2012 -Police Nationale du Congo officers gather at a stadium to be briefed by commanders, in Goma, eastern Congo.

Dec. 3, 2012 -Police Nationale du Congo officers gather at a stadium to be briefed by commanders, in Goma, eastern Congo.  (AP)

Several hundred Congo army soldiers returned to the key eastern city of Goma, as rebels remained poised nearby and a possible fight loomed for the city of 1 million.

About 700 government army troops reentered Goma Monday in trucks which arrived at Katindo barracks. Crowds gathered to cheer and sing and some women rushed forward to kiss the troops.

The soldiers were deployed to positions across the city. Their return is a concrete sign that the state may be able to regain control of Goma and other territory it lost in a few days of fighting earlier this month.

Even as the army soldiers returned, the M23 rebels remained perilously close to Goma, with their fighters on Monday taking positions just 1.6 miles away from this provincial capital.

After a nearly two-week occupation, the M23 rebel group agreed to leave Goma over the weekend under intense international pressure, including fresh sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. They agreed to retreat to12 miles outside the city on the condition that Congo's government enter into negotiations over their grievances no later than 2 p.m. local time on Monday. The rebels are threatening to retake the city if Congo 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, President Joseph Kabila 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 about negotiations.

On Monday as the ultimatum neared its end, Mende could not immediately be reached for comment, with an aide saying he was in a meeting.

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 his team was ready to negotiate with M23 on the basis of the 2009 accords. He also 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."

At the same time, Congolese troops, who had gathered in the town of Minova, some 37 miles south of Goma, did not appear to be moving any closer to Goma. The city of Goma was being patrolled by Congolese police.

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."