DRC rebel leader heads to talks amid standoff

Sultani Makenga, head of the M23 rebel group, travels to capital Kampala as deadline for retreat looms.

Sultani Makenga, leader of the M23 armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has travelled to the Ugandan capital Kampala for talks at the invitation of the head of the Ugandan military, according to a spokesman.

The rebels captured Goma, the main city in the east of DRC, last week and took the key town of Sake, 20km to the west, the following day.

Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste reports on the looming deadline

“General Makenga Sultani is travelling to Kampala to meet the other chief of staff,” Amani Kabasha, an M23 spokesperson, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

Joseph Kabila, DRC president, met M23 for the first time at the weekend after a summit in Kampala, where regional leaders gave the rebels two days to leave Goma, seized after UN-backed government troops melted away.

The DRC government said it would not negotiate with the rebels until they pulled out of Goma, but the rebels said the government was in no position to set conditions on peace talks.

The tense stand-off is dominating the country’s politics and airwaves. Rebel soldiers have just a few hours before the deadline for retreat expires at midnight local time (22:00 GMT) – but so far there’s no sign that M23 is planning to give up territory. 

An Al Jazeera crew travelling with the rebels says they’re continuing their patrols around Goma – the capital of North Kivu province.

Rebels’ position

Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, political leader of M23, said that a pullout from Goma could not be a precondition for talks with the government.

Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Goma, said that the M23 spokesman told her that withdrawing from Goma was not an issue.

“He said it was an issue for many regional powers, and also for the United Nations and the US who have called for the M23 to withdraw,” our correspondent said.

M23 spokesperson talks to Al Jazeera

“It does seem how there is an uneasy stalemate between these two sides. We have the Congolese army amassing in Monova, and we have the M23 saying they’re going to stay here in Goma.”

The Ugandan military said it could not immediately confirm Makenga’s visit but that it was probable since Uganda’s chief of defence forces, Aronda Nyakayirima, was apparently co-ordinating M23’s withdrawal. 

“I am not aware of his arrival but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were here because meetings have been going on and since Aronda has been tasked to co-ordinate the withdrawal [from Goma], he would need to talk to him [Makenga],” Felix Kulayigye, military spokesperson, said.

A diplomat said the African Union was due to hold a Peace and Security Council meeting later on Monday to discuss the crisis.

The M23 was launched by former fighters from the Tutsi ethnic group, the minority group that inhabits both Rwanda and DR Congo and to which Kagame belongs.

The rebels were integrated into the military under a March 23, 2009, peace deal from which their name is derived. The mutineers say the terms of that deal were never fully implemented.

The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee, amid persistent reports that the M23 rebels have carried out atrocities against local people.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies