Rebels patrol in Congo city as deadline to withdraw nears

Rebels widely believed to be 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 Sunday, was regrouping in the town of Minova, 36 miles to the south, but they appeared disorganized and not in position to launch an immediate assault on Goma.

Congolese Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo confirmed that President Joseph Kabila had met in recent days with the rebels during a mediation session in neighboring Uganda. He said that the government at this point is leaning toward "the avenue of dialogue and peace," suggesting it is unlikely the military will try to take Goma by force if the ultimatum is not respected.

"Any action to take back the city of Goma by force will without doubt result in enormous human loss," said Matata Ponyo in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday. "President Kabila is giving priority to the road that will lead to the least loss," he said.

A deadline was issued by the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region on Saturday in Kampala, Uganda's capital, and gave the M23 rebels two days to retreat to 12 miles outside of Goma. It expires at midnight on Monday.

"I think (the rebels) will abide by it (the ultimatum)," Matata Ponyo said.

The regional group is attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting, but it did not threaten any consequences if the rebels don't depart. Rwanda and Uganda belong to the group and 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 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, said Bertrand Bisimwa, the M23 political spokesman.

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 little 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.

Tens of thousands of Congolese have fled to refugee camps for safety. 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 sped through the town. Others walked the streets, looking for food, testimony to the poor pay that government troops receive.

M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. The rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.

Matata Ponyo said that the Congolese president agreed to meet with the rebels in order to hear their demands and in a good faith effort to avoid bloodshed. In the early months of the rebellion, the M23 said that the Congolese government had not paid them well, and had discriminated against people from the Tutsi ethnicity, which makes up the bulk of their ranks. A U.N. report released last week, however, said that the rebels were backed by Rwanda and most likely fighting for a greater share of Congo's mineral riches.

Matata Ponyo said that things like greater pay are on the table, but Congo's territorial integrity is off limits.

"These are borders that were drawn in Berlin in 1885. More than 100 years have passed -- no. It's not negotiable," he said.

Both Uganda and Rwanda are named in a report by the U.N. Group of Experts as key backers of the M23 rebels, and Matata Ponyo noted that still Uganda was leading the mediation and Rwanda was given a seat at the table.

The regional conflict is also complicated by the fact that Rwanda becomes a permanent member of the Security Council in January. Matata Ponyo said this was a failure on the part of the U.N.