GOMA // Rebels known to be backed by Rwanda remained perilously close to the major population centre here, with their fighters yesterday taking positions just 3 kilometres away from the provincial capital as their leaders said they were waiting for a 48-hour deadline to expire.
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 to 20 kilometres outside the city on the condition that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government enter into negotiations over their grievances no later than yesterday afternoon. The rebels are threatening to retake the city if the DRC 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 kilometres outside the Goma city limit. Some were seen erecting a tent on a western hill. Others, in groups of three, took up 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. "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 DRC 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.
In recent weeks, the enormous, jungle-covered nation of the DRC, whose capital is more than 1,000 miles away from this provincial eastern city, inched closer to war with its smaller, but more developed neighbour, 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 peace accord dated March 23, 2009, 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.
Residents whose lives were upended two weeks ago when rebels invaded the town on November 20, tried their best to go about their lives.
Most shops had reopened, as the city of 1 million was slowly trying to get back to normal despite uncertainty about what would happen in the coming hours. A woman selling second-hand clothes at the Virunga market said she had no choice.
"We're not going to wait for ever, are we?" said Anette Murkendiwa. "I need to feed my children."