United Nations peacekeepers are scrambling to avert a dangerous power vacuum in Goma as rebels prepare to pull out from the strategic city as early as Thursday.
The city of a million people in eastern Congo will be vulnerable to the threat of looting and violence when the M23 rebels withdraw. Unless the withdrawal is carefully co-ordinated, the UN peacekeepers and local police officers could be inadequate to ensure security in the city after the rebels are gone.
Rebel officers say their troops will withdraw 20 kilometres from Goma, but they say that will continue to "protect" the city and will remain unofficially in control.
UN sources say the withdrawal is a deliberate military tactic by the rebels, allowing them to consolidate their forces without the risks of running a huge, sprawling city on a daily basis. The rebels are being blamed for sky-rocketing prices as well as closed shops and banks, which have caused economic suffering in the city.
Colonel Seraphin Murhula, a top rebel commander, said the M23 rebels will be ready to return to Goma "at any moment" if Congo's government forces make any attempt to regain control of the city. The Congolese soldiers have already retreated 60 kilometres from Goma and are in obvious disarray.
"If they think that they can ignore our demands, it will be very catastrophic for them," Col. Murhula told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.
Officially, he said, Goma will be secured by an international force of African and United Nations peacekeepers, with the rebels and the Congolese army each keeping a company (about 100 soldiers) at Goma's airport as "observers."
A source at the UN peacekeeping force said the Congolese army might also be permitted to send a battalion of troops back to its home base in Goma, but it would be prohibited from combat.
The Rwandan-backed rebels have issued a long list of demands on the government of President Joseph Kabila, including the release of political prisoners and the disarmament of Congolese government forces in the region.
"If we leave Goma and nothing is done on our demands, we'll attack Goma to the last," Col. Murhula said, speaking at a Goma hotel that has been commandeered by the rebels.
"Twenty kilometres is not far. It's not a problem for us. We can return at any moment."
The rebels are expecting Mr. Kabila to begin negotiations with them soon, following an agreement that he reached with neighbouring countries at a meeting in Kampala on the weekend.
Mr. Kabila is believed to have made concessions to the rebels in the Kampala talks. The extent of the concessions is unknown but at minimum he has legitimized the rebels and bolstered their power by agreeing to negotiate with them.
The details of the withdrawal from Goma have not been finalized. Col. Murhula said the rebels are studying possible locations for their new base outside Goma. He said they will have a "concentration zone" outside Goma where the rebels will be consolidated.
The withdrawal from Goma could be completed as early as Friday, Col. Murhula said. The rebels are already withdrawing from several other captured towns near Goma, he said.
Rebel control of Goma will be assured because Congo's army has been pushed far back from the city, and Goma's police force is now loyal to the rebels.
The police accepted rebel control last week. Their loyalty to the rebels was made very clear on Wednesday when police escorted a pro-rebel march in Goma, giving the demonstrators full freedom to march through the city and to the gates of the UN military headquarters in the city.
In vehicles and on foot, the police travelled with the several hundred pro-rebel demonstrators as they marched from the centre of Goma to the UN headquarters, waving pro-M23 signs.
Some of the demonstrators admitted that they were promised money in exchange for their attendance at the pro-rebel rally.
At the end of the march, they loudly cheered a speech by M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga, who promised that the rebels would continue "protecting" Goma. "We cannot leave you," Mr. Runiga told the crowd.
The crowd chanted "Kinshasa, Bukavu" – two Congolese cities that the rebels have vowed to capture – and Mr. Runiga joined their chants of "forward, forward."