M23 rebels vow to take Congo, as troops defect
Goma, Congo - Pressing ahead with their seizure of cities in mineral-rich eastern Congo, the M23 rebels said Wednesday they are fighting to control all of this sprawling country and to topple President Joseph Kabila's government.
Following their capture of the strategic city of Goma a day earlier, the rebels took the nearby town of Sake on Wednesday as they moved toward the provincial capital of Bukavu.
"Kabila has to go. We want our country back," said M23 Col. Vianney Kazarama to cheers from thousands gathered at the Goma stadium. "We are now going to Kinshasa. No one will divide this country."
Nearly 3,000 Congolese army soldiers and police defected to the rebels in Goma on Wednesday and turned in their weapons at the stadium rally.
Even as the M23 rebels consolidated their gains, the presidents of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda called on them to give up the territory they now control.
The M23 is made up of hundreds of officers who deserted the Congo army in April this year. Neighboring Rwanda has supplied soldiers and equipped the rebels with sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120 mm mortars, according to a report by United Nations experts to be published Friday.
The U.N. report accuses the rebels of grave human rights abuses included murder, rape and the use of child soldiers.
The M23 is largely made up of ethnic Tutsis who want to extend their control over eastern Congo and its valuable deposits of gold, copper, coltan and timber. Their campaign, and alleged support from Rwanda, has its roots in the 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutus.
Since then eastern Congo has been plundered by several rebel forces and foreign armies in conflicts that killed millions of people.
The speed with which the M23 has seized Goma and the surrounding countryside exposes the weakness of Kabila's government, 978 miles to the west in Kinshasa, experts said.
"It's a setback for Kabila. He wasn't even capable of reforming the army and the fall of Goma demonstrated that," said Felix Bafilemba, a Goma-based analyst for the Enough Project. "It marks the beginning of the end for Kabila's regime."
Strewn with bodies, burned out vehicles and abandoned tanks, the road between Goma and Sake showed evidence of Tuesday's fighting.
M23 soldiers in vehicles patrolled the streets of Sake, 17 miles south of Goma. As in Goma, most residents accepted the rebels' presence.
"We only want peace," said Innocent Rumabo in Sake.
Other resident complained of rapes carried out Tuesday night.
"I know two women who were raped, there are more in the area," said one Goma resident who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation.
In neighboring Uganda, the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo resolved to put pressure on the M23 rebels to give up territory they have captured, according to a statement released at the end of the emergency talks.
"Even if there are legitimate grievances by the mutineering group known as M23, they cannot accept the expansion of this war or entertain the idea of overthrowing the legitimate government of (Congo) or undermining its authority," said presidents Joseph Kabila of Congo, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, in a statement issued late Wednesday.
"Therefore the M23 must immediately stop this offensive and pull out of Goma," said the presidents' statement issued in Kampala. This resolution was to be immediately communicated to the M23 leadership, the statement said.
Behind the statement, there was considerable bargaining in the emergency summit, according to diplomats. Congo's Kabila made a concession by agreeing to negotiate directly with the M23, a reversal from his previous refusal to talk with the rebels.
For his part, Kagame publicly supported Kabila and reiterated his denial that Rwanda is supporting the rebels. But U.N. experts say the evidence is overwhelming that Kagame is supporting, even directing, the M23 so that tiny Rwanda can control eastern Congo's lucrative mineral trade.
Uganda, which was also implicated in the Congo violence by report of U.N. experts, denies supporting the rebels but Museveni is increasingly seen as an ally of Rwanda's Kagame.
While the three presidents called on the M23 to give up the territory that they have seized, the rebels continued Wednesday on toward their next target: Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province on Lake Kivu.
The Congo soldiers remaining in the government army near Goma said they are 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, northwest of Goma, where some of the troops have regrouped. The major required anonymity because of the uncertain situation.
The U.N. has its largest peacekeeping force in the world in Congo, with 18,000 troops, known by their acronym MONUSCO. But the 1,500 peacekeepers in Goma did not help the Congo government troops forces during Tuesday's battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli, who expressed frustration over the lack of action by the peacekeepers.
A U.N. spokesman in New York said the peacekeepers in Goma held their fire to avoid triggering a battle.
On Wednesday, the Security Council was expected to review the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo. A resolution adopted Tuesday by the Security Council asks the U.N. secretary-general to recommend possible redeployment, and possible "additional force multipliers."
The resolution approved unanimously by the council imposes targeted sanctions, including a travel ban and assets freeze on the M23 rebel group leadership. But it did not name two countries accused by Congo of supporting the rebels: Rwanda and Uganda.
The council demanded that the M23 rebels withdraw from Goma, disarm and disband, and insisted on the restoration of the crumbing Congolese government authority in the country's turbulent east.
Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda contributed to this report.
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