GOMA, CONGO // Thousands of Congolese soldiers and policemen defected to the M23 rebels yesterday, as rebel leaders vowed to take control of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"We are now going to Kinshasa. No one will divide this country," said Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the M23 spokesman, to a cheering crowd of thousands.
The rebels organised the rally at Goma's Stadium of Volcanoes after seizing control of the strategic city in eastern DRC on Tuesday.
The M23 rebels' next goal is Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province on the other side of Lake Kivu, Col Kazarama said. He claimed the rebels already control the town of Sake, on the road to Bukavu, and will soon take Minova, a lakeside town in South Kivu.
More than 2,100 army troops and 700 police turned in their weapons, according to M23's Colonel Seraphin Mirindi. The former army troops and policemen piled up their arms and ammunition in the stadium.
In Bukavu people were demonstrating against the Kinshasa government and in support of the rebels, according to residents.
The Congolese soldiers remaining in the government army near Goma said they were not sure what to do.
"We are waiting for orders now. We don't know what we are supposed to do. It's hard. My comrades who defected in Goma, we're going to fight them," said a Congolese army major reached by phone in Kanyabayonga, 100 kilometres to the south, where the troops have regrouped.
In Kampala, Uganda, foreign ministers from nine African countries yesterday urged other nations on the continent to contribute troops to an international force to fight the rebels.
The plea was signed by DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan, Congo Republic and Zambia.
"The meeting called on the African Union's Peace and Security Council to mandate the neutral international force and seek the support of the United Nations Security Council to deploy the neutral force," said the Uganda spokesman Fred Opolot.
In July, regional countries agreed to a 4,000-strong force to try to neutralise the M23 rebels, but this has so far failed to get off the ground, largely because there is disagreement over the composition of the force.
So far, only Tanzania has offered to contribute troops, but it was not immediately clear how many.
The United Nations accuses the M23 of grave crimes including recruiting child soldiers, summary executions and rape, according to an experts report to be released on Friday.
The United Nations peacekeepers did not help the DRC government forces during Tuesday's battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels. A UN spokesman in New York said that the nearly 1,500 UN peacekeepers in Goma held their fire to avoid triggering a battle.
* With additional reporting by Reuters