Rebels in eastern Congo ignored a deadline set by regional leaders for them to withdraw from the city of Goma and set a series of conditions for President Joseph Kabila to meet before they pull out.
The demands include providing a schedule for negotiations with opposition parties, civil-society groups and the Congolese diaspora, Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, head of M23’s political wing, told reporters today in Goma. Other conditions include the release of political prisoners and the dissolution of Congo’s electoral commission, he said.
“If he meets these demands, M23 will leave,” Runiga said. Leaders from Central Africa’s Great Lakes region on Nov. 24 gave the rebels two days to move at least 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from Goma, stop all “war activities” and allow the Congolese army and police to re-enter the city.
M23 captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on Nov. 20 after ending an unofficial three-month cease-fire with the Congolese army, which has fled the city close to the border with Rwanda. The renegade group is made up of soldiers who mutinied in April and headed by General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. A United Nations group of experts monitoring Congo’s arms embargo has accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing the insurgents, allegations both governments deny.
Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces are one of the world’s largest sources of columbite-tantalite, the mineral known as coltan that’s used in mobile phones and computers. The central African nation is also the continent’s biggest producer of tin ore, most of which is mined in the Kivus. Banro Corp., based in Toronto, operates the Twangiza gold mine about 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Goma in South Kivu.
Congo’s government rejected M23’s call for broad-based negotiations and said any talks would focus solely on the implementation of a March 23, 2009 peace deal. The rebel group, which takes its name from the date of that agreement, mutinied after saying the government failed to respect the accord.
“We will negotiate with M23 when they have withdrawn from Goma,” Communications Minister Lambert Mende said in a phone interview today from Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, which is about 1,660 kilometers (1,032 miles) west of Goma.
M23 will meet with business leaders in Goma soon to discuss resuming “economic activity” in the lake-side city that is a key transit point for trade in the region, Runiga said. The group rejected an ultimatum from the interim head of Congo’s ground forces, Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga, to quit Goma within 48 hours.
“If he attacks we reserve the right to defend ourselves,” Runiga said.
Congo and Rwanda have fought directly or by proxy since the late 1990s. The 2009 peace deal improved relations between the two countries until the M23 insurgency began seven months ago.
Earlier today, Rwanda’s military said a rival rebel group based in eastern Congo attacked three villages inside its territory. Two companies of soldiers from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by the French acronym FDLR, carried out the assault at 5 a.m. today, Brigadier-General Joseph Nzabamwinta said in a mobile-phone text message.
Two attackers were killed and six were captured in what Nzabamwinta said was an attempt to derail the peace process in eastern Congo. Rwanda will continue defending its territory and “doesn’t want anything to escalate the situation,” he said.
Rwanda accuses the FDLR, an ethnic-Hutu-led group, of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which at least 800,000 people were killed
Congo’s army denied there had been any attack by the FDLR.
“It’s a rumour created by Rwanda to justify the non-withdrawal of M23 from Goma,” army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli said in a phone interview from Minova, near the border of North Kivu and South Kivu. “How could the FDLR attack Rwanda, from where? The M23 controls the length of the border.”
The UN experts’ report identified Rwandan Defense Minister General James Kabarebe as the ultimate commander of M23, a charge Runiga denied.
“I was never recruited by James Kabarebe,” he said. “I am at the head of a movement of Congolese,” he said. M23 opposes any “balkanization” or splitting up of Congo, Runiga said, calling on Congolese throughout the country to join the movement.
Kabarebe hung up the phone when Bloomberg called him today. He didn’t immediately respond to a text message requesting comment.