The rebel colonel was in good spirits as he drank and dined with the police chief and a top banker at an upscale Goma restaurant Tuesday night. “Bon appetit,” he cheerfully greeted his fellow diners, still wearing his camouflage uniform as he strolled around the restaurant.
The M23 rebels are beginning to enjoy themselves in Goma. A week after shocking the world by capturing this strategic city of a million people in eastern Congo, the rebels are getting comfortable here. And they are showing no signs of leaving, despite a Tuesday deadline set by neighbouring countries.
After defying the deadline and refusing to withdraw from Goma, the rebels’ military and political leaders issued conflicting statements. Some said they might still be willing to pull out in a few days, honouring an agreement by regional politicians who met in the Uganda capital of Kampala this week. But other rebel leaders announced a long series of conditions and demands, casting serious doubt on the possibility of a withdrawal.
The Rwandan-backed rebels, who launched an offensive against Congo’s army in April, have accused the government of violating a 2009 peace agreement. But their real agenda, according to most analysts, is to help Rwanda deepen its control of the mineral-rich eastern provinces of Congo.
The demands announced by M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga at a press conference here on Tuesday were wide-ranging and virtually certain to be unacceptable to the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among the demands: the full release of political prisoners in the capital, Kinshasa, including opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi; the dissolution of the electoral commission; an investigation into the attempted murder of a prominent doctor in Goma; and the disarming of all Congolese soldiers in the region.
The demands were swiftly criticized by a government spokesman in Kinshasa, who called them “a farce.” A military spokesman said the demands were “a declaration of war.” The Congolese army is still vowing to expel the rebels from Goma, despite its obvious disarray after humiliating defeats in the past few weeks.
The reality is that the rebels are fully in control of Goma and its surrounding villages, and they seem entrenched here for the foreseeable future – as the scene at the restaurant suggested.
The nearest Congolese army troops have been pushed back about 60 kilometres from Goma, and have failed to advance from there, despite sporadic attempts at a counterattack.
The ill-disciplined Congolese soldiers, who have been wreaking havoc on civilians in the town of Minova, show no signs of any ability to defeat the rebels, who are well-financed and heavily armed with sophisticated weapons, including night-vision gear and 120-millimetre mortars.
Although the rebels seem better disciplined than Congo’s poorly paid army, they too have been accused of atrocities and human-rights abuses as they advanced toward Goma this year. There are reports of rebel involvement in reprisal killings in Goma after they captured the city. And another report yesterday said the rebels have begun looting the city’s central bank.
But the rebels have consolidated their rule over Goma by also bringing the city back to some semblance of normality. The streets are relatively peaceful, civilian officials have returned to their posts at the border between Congo and Rwanda, and the border is bustling with traffic in both directions. Humanitarian agencies are moving around Goma, bringing food and water to most of the 140,000 people who fled their homes after the latest rebel advances.
The situation, though, remains volatile. The fragility of the region was highlighted on Tuesday when fighting erupted at the Congo-Rwanda border, just north of Goma. The explosions of heavy artillery fire were heard by aid workers in Goma, sparking fears in the city.
The Rwandan government blamed a Hutu militia in Congo, accusing it of launching an attack on three Rwandan villages, but there was no clear confirmation that this was true. Rwanda has often used the Hutu militia presence in Congo as a pretext for intervening in the country. The Hutu militia fighters, known as the FDLR, denied that they had attacked the Rwandan villages.