Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they will not lay down their arms until they have had direct talks with the country’s government. Despite being ordered by the leaders of DR Congo’s neighbours on Saturday to release their hold over the key eastern city of Goma, the M23 group told Al Jazeera they were standing firm.
Regional leaders met in the Ugandan capital of Kampala and called on M23 to end hostilities and leave Goma, after their advance in the east of DR Congo led to fears of a wider conflict.
The meeting of heads of state in the Great Lakes region went forward without one key player – Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country the UN accuses of backing the rebels – and wrapped up after less than an hour.
In their closing statement, the leaders called on the rebels to “stop all war activities” and “stop talk of overthrowing an elected government”.
Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, reporting from the Kampala summit, said that some delegates described the agreement as a “breakthrough”.
“It is a two-fold agreement. The main point of it is that the Congolese government is to listen to M23 and address their grievances. The second part is that M23 is to withdraw from Goma and move back to positions 20km to the north of the city, with a neutral zone policed by the UN,” he said. Kagame, whose country denies backing the M23, had been expected to attend the meeting in Kampala.
Kagame was due to hold talks with his counterpart from the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, later on Saturday, according to sources in both capitals. Members of Sassou’s delegation had already arrived in the Rwandan capital.
But a Ugandan foreign ministry official told AFP news agency shortly before the summit that Kagame was not coming and would instead be represented by his foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo.
No reason was provided for the absence.Kabila flew in for the summit in Kampala, which also included the presidents of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.A Ugandan official had earlier said that both Kagame and Kabila would attend, and that without them the summit would be “meaningless”.
The international community has voiced alarm over the rapid advance by the M23 in a mineral-rich but underdeveloped region where the fighters seized Goma and another key town nearby in less than a week.
The advance of M23 has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, prompted warnings of a humanitarian disaster, and raised fears that a wider conflict could again erupt in the area, the cradle of back-to-back wars that shook DR Congo from 1996 to 2002. The rebels captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on Tuesday after less than a week of fighting, before taking Sake, 20km to the west, the next day.
Reports on Saturday said the situation was calm but tense in both towns. Refusal to withdraw Kabila met the leaders of Rwanda and Uganda immediately following the fall of Goma and the three leaders issued a joint statement urging M23 to pull out of the city.
The M23 has refused to withdraw unless Kabila agrees to direct peace talks with the group.
The UN has also accused Uganda of backing the M23 rebels, charges that it, like
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