GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO// The leader of a rebel group seeking to overthrow the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government headed to neighbouring Uganda yesterday following a meeting between the Rwandan and Congolese presidents.
However, rebel spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama vowed that the fighters would press forward toward seizing the strategic eastern town of Bukavu, which would mark the biggest gain in rebel territory in nearly a decade if it were to fall. The presidents from Congo, Rwanda and Uganda who met in the Ugandan capital of Kampala already have called on the fighters to give up the territory they now control.
DRC president Joseph Kabila later said he was willing to talk with rebel representatives. "We are not stopping at all; the determination is the same. Whatever happens in Kampala does not affect us," Mr Kazarama said, confirming that rebel leader Col Sultani Makenga was travelling to Uganda. The fighters from the group known as M23 are believed to be backed by neighbouring Rwanda already have seized the provincial capital of Goma this week and later took the nearby town of Sake on Wednesday.
The violence has forced more than 100,000 people to flee, more than half of them children, according to the UN children's agency. While the rebels have vowed to overthrow Mr Kabila's government, they remain some 1,600 kilometres from the capital of Kinshasa in a country of dense jungle with few paved roads.
Meanwhile, hundreds of DRC soldiers who had retreated from Goma days earlier were holed up in Minova, a lakeside city on the road to Bukavu. "We are waiting for orders, but they haven't come yet. We're hungry and have spent five days sleeping in the bush under the rain," said a DRC army major who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The rebels are believed to be backed by Rwanda, and to a smaller extent by Uganda, which are accused of equipping them with sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120mm mortars. A report released on Wednesday by the UN Group of Experts said both Rwanda and Uganda have "co-operated to support the creation and expansion of the political branch of M23 and have consistently advocated on behalf of the rebels."
The report's release, just one day after the violent takeover of Goma, is expected to increase pressure on the international community to confront the two eastern African countries over their role in the neighbouring DRC's conflict.