Rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) yesterday said they would withdraw from the eastern city of Goma if DR Congo President Joseph Kabila agreed to their demands, which Kinshasa was quick to dismiss as a farce.
The deadlock threatens to prolong a crisis that regional officials had hoped they could prevent from descending into all-out war.
The M23 rebels, who have said they want to overthrow the government in Kinshasa, seized Goma last week after Congolese soldiers withdrew and UN peacekeepers were forced to quit defending the city.
The Ugandan military, which has been coordinating talks with M23, had earlier said that M23 leader Colonel Sultani Makenga had agreed to withdraw with no conditions.
However, M23’s political leader Jean-Marie Runiga told reporters in Goma his forces would withdraw only if Kabila held national talks, released political prisoners and dissolved an electoral commission, a body accused by Western powers of delivering Kabila a second term last year in a flawed election.
“The withdrawal, yes. If Kabila agrees to our demands then we’ll go quickly,” Runiga told reporters.
The conflicting statements indicated a quick solution to the latest insurgency in the DR Congo’s east was not close.
DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende quickly dismissed M23’s demands.
“It’s a farce, that’s the word. There’s been a document adopted by the region. If each day they’re going to come back with new demands it becomes ridiculous. We’re no longer in the realms of seriousness,” Mende told reporters.
The rebels yesterday showed no signs of an imminent pull-out and continued to guard strategic sites in Goma.
African leaders had at the weekend called on M23 to abandon their aim of toppling Kinshasa and to withdraw from Goma. The Great Lakes heads of state also proposed that UN peacekeepers provide security in a neutral zone between Goma and new areas seized by M23.
In a potential further escalation, Rwanda yesterday said its troops clashed with Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels who attacked three villages on its border with the DR Congo, but an FDLR spokesman denied its fighters had been involved.
Rwanda has in the past used the FDLR as a justification for intervening in the DR Congo. However, the rebel group has not mounted a significant attack on Rwanda in years.
Congo and UN experts accuse Rwanda of backing the M23 group in eastern Congo, a charge vehemently denied by Rwandan President Paul Kagame.