Congo soldiers loot crucial town

Nov 26, 2012, 9:59 AM EST
Congolese government soldiers (FARDC) patrol the streets of Minova under their control Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012.
(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels allegedly backed by Rwanda and Uganda stepped up their patrols Monday of this key eastern Congo city that the insurgents seized last week, even as a midnight deadline issued by a regional bloc for them to withdraw loomed.
The Congolese military, which suffered a humiliating defeat when it lost Goma last week, was regrouping in the town of Minova, 60 kilometers (36 miles) to the south, but they appeared disorganized and not in position to launch an assault on Goma.
Residents of Goma, a city of 1 million, anxiously waited to see if the fighters will abide by the deadline that was issued by the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region. The regional group attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting issued the ultimatum on Saturday in Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda. The group did not threaten any consequences if the rebels don't depart.
"I am worried the fighting will come back to Goma soon if the army attacks again. Last week, we were so scared. I don't want to go through that again," said Amani Zaliwa, a Goma resident.
The military chief of the M23 rebels would not indicate whether his fighters planned to respect the withdrawal time limit. Reached by telephone at an undisclosed location, he said he was on his way to Kampala for talks.
"We will talk about all of this in coming hours."said Gen. Sultani Makenga, the military leader of the eight-month-old rebel group.
In downtown Goma, armed M23 rebels drove slowly in a Land Cruiser past United Nations troops stationed at traffic circles. Others were on foot patrols on the main arteries. The U.N., which has hundreds of peacekeeping troops stationed in Goma, did not do anything to halt the rebels' advance into the city a week ago, saying that the U.N. mandate did not allow them to engage the fighters.
On Monday, a U.N. transport helicopter buzzed above the shores of this lakeside city, which features low-slung buildings with corrugated tin roofs. For the first time since the rebels took the city, schools reopened Monday, though turnout was low. At one Goma school, only 50 out of 1,400 enrolled students showed up.
Over the weekend in Minova, pickup trucks packed with Congolese army soldiers armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sped through the town. Others walked the streets, looking for food. Some were even selling cigarettes on the side of the road, testimony to the poor pay that government troops receive.
In Minova, Congo Gen. Francois Olenga, who was recently named head of the Congolese army's ground troops, held meetings with area commanders.
"The country is in danger. We cannot defend our country with traitors," Olenga told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, talks at ending the conflict appeared to be stalled.
M23 soldiers as well as Congolese officials, including President Joseph Kabila, traveled to Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni was heading the mediation effort under the banner of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga said he was also involved. But Uganda can hardly claim to be totally neutral: Both Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, according to a U.N. report released on Wednesday.
Rene Abandi, M23's head of external relations, said M23 representatives met with the Congolese president in a tense, two-hour meeting attended by Museveni. The Congolese government, however, denied that it has had any direct negotiations with the M23. Government spokesman Lambert Mende said on Monday that there will be no talks with the rebels until they leave Goma.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then the rebels have occupied vast swaths of territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo. The rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda and, Africa chief photographer Jerome Delay in Minova, Congo, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.