Rebel leader to meet with Congolese, Rwandan presidents

A rebel group seeking to overthrow the Congolese government is now focusing its aim on seizing the strategic eastern town of Bukavu.

M23 fighters vow to press forward as leaders meet in Ugandan capital

Residents of Goma listen to an M23 rebel group spokesman at the Volcanoes Stadium in the Congolese town on Wednesday. (Phil Moore/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

The leader of a rebel group seeking to overthrow the Congolese government headed to neighbouring Uganda on Thursday following a meeting between the Rwandan and Congolese presidents.

However, rebel spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama vowed that the M23 fighters would press forward toward seizing the strategic eastern town of Bukavu, which would mark the biggest gain in rebel territory in nearly a decade if it were to fall.

The presidents from Congo, Rwanda and Uganda who met in the Ugandan capital of Kampala already have called on the fighters to give up the territory they now control. Congolese President Joseph Kabila later said he was willing to talk with rebel representatives.

"We are not stopping at all; the determination is the same. Whatever happens in Kampala does not affect us," Kazarama said, confirming that rebel leader Col. Sultani Makenga was travelling to Uganda.

The Congolese rebels are believed to be backed by Rwanda, and to a smaller extent by Uganda. Both are accused of equipping them with sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120-mm mortars

Earlier this week the rebels seized the provincial capital of Goma, and later took the nearby town of Sake on Wednesday.

Thousands flee violence

The violence has forced more than 100,000 people to flee, more than half of whom are children, according to the UN children's agency.

While they have vowed to overthrow President Joseph Kabila's government, they remain some 1,600 kilometres from the capital of Kinshasa in a country of dense jungle with few paved roads.

Elsewhere, hundreds of Congolese soldiers who had retreated from Goma days earlier were holed up in Minova, a lakeside city on the road to Bukavu.

A child walks through an abandoned internal displaced people (IDP) camp in Nyaruchinga, near Goma on Thursday. Thousands of people are fleeing the conflict in eastern Congo, as leaders meet to negotiate in Uganda. (James Akena/Reuters)

"We are waiting for orders, but they haven't come yet. We're hungry and have spent five days sleeping in the bush under the rain," said a Congolese army major who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

A report released Wednesday by the UN Group of Experts said both Rwanda and Uganda have "co-operated to support the creation and expansion of the political branch of M23, and have consistently advocated on behalf of the rebels."

The report's release, just one day after the violent takeover of Goma, is sure to increase pressure on the international community to confront the two eastern African countries over their role in neighbouring Congo's conflict.

Both Rwanda and Uganda have repeatedly denied supporting the M23 movement and have faced little international criticism over the allegations.

Goma was last threatened by rebels in 2008 when fighters from the now-defunct National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP, stopped just short of the city.

Their backs to the wall, the Congolese government agreed to enter into talks with the CNDP and a year later, on March 23, 2009, a peace deal was negotiated calling for the CNDP to put down their arms in return for being integrated into the national army.

The peace deal fell apart this April, when up to 700 soldiers, most of them ex-CNDP members, defected from the army, claiming that the Congolese government had failed to uphold their end of the deal. Like in 2008, they again advanced toward Goma. This time, the city fell and the disastrous consequences for the population were already on display.

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