Trucks loaded with M23 rebel fighters patrolled the empty streets of a Congolese provincial capital in the early hours of Tuesday, defying a midnight deadline issued by a regional bloc of east African nations that called for their immediate withdrawal.

The rebels, believed to be backed by Rwanda and Uganda, were issued an ultimatum over the weekend by the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region to pull out of Goma, home to one million people.

Signalling their defiance to the request, the rebels announced plans to move their headquarters to the city later this week.

For the first time since the fall of Goma eight days ago, the Congolese government acknowledged that it had entered talks with the rebels and that the two sides have been meeting in Kampala, the capital of neighbouring Uganda.

"We are still waiting to hear about the outcome of the meetings in Kampala. We should receive a document about it tomorrow. The president

[of the M23] came back this evening. But given that we do not know what is asked of us we did not move out of our positions," said Bertrand Bisimwa, spokesman for M23's political branch.

ii-congo-looting-03631683

Thousands fled the M23-controlled town of Sake on Friday as platoons of rebels made their way across the hills to the next major town of Minova, where the Congolese army was believed to be regrouping. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Congolese Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo confirmed that President Joseph Kabila had met in recent days with the rebels in Kampala. He said that the government is leaning toward "the avenue of dialogue and peace," suggesting that it is unlikely that the military will try to take Goma by force if the ultimatum is not respected.

"Any action to take back the city of Goma by force will without doubt result in enormous human loss," said Matata Ponyo in a telephone interview Monday. "President Kabila is giving priority to the road that will lead to the least loss," he said. But he added: "I think [the rebels] will abide by it [the ultimatum]."

The deadline was issued by the regional bloc on Saturday in Kampala. The group is attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting and did not threaten any consequences if the rebels don't depart.

Rwanda and Uganda belong to the group, but they are hardly neutral. Both countries back the rebels, according to a UN report released on Wednesday, and they would be unlikely to go to war with M23 over the seizure of Goma.

M23's military chief 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 country is in danger,' Congo general says

Residents say fear that if the Congo army attempts to regain Goma, there will be bitter fighting.

"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.

In downtown Goma, armed M23 rebels drove slowly in a Land Cruiser past UN troops stationed at traffic circles. Others were on foot patrols on the main arteries. The United Nations, 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 UN mandate did not allow them to engage the fighters.

ii-congot-patrol-rtr3awbb

Congolese army soldiers patrol in Minova, some 45 kilometres west of Goma. Congo said on Sunday it would not negotiate with M23 rebels in the east until they pulled out of Goma. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Tens of thousands of Congolese have fled to refugee camps for safety from the fighting. The UN and aid organizations struggled to provide them with food and supplies. When a rainstorm hit the Munguna 3 camp, about 11 kilometres south of Goma, children held out their hands to catch the water and drink it. They were quickly imitated by adults.

Over the weekend in Minova, 60 kilometres to the south of Goma, pickup trucks packed with a disorganized 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.

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," said Olenga

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 honour the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.