Congo rebel leader in talks as pullout deadline looms

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DR Congo rebels patrolled the dusty streets of Goma on Monday as their military leader flew in to neighbouring Uganda for talks ahead of a deadline set by regional African leaders for the group to pull out of the strategic eastern city.

The M23 group, which seized Goma in a sudden advance last week that has raised international fears of a wider regional conflict, was given a Monday night deadline to leave the city at a weekend regional summit in Kampala.

But the rebels, a largely Tutsi ethnic group, have refused to withdraw before any peace talks with the government of President Joseph Kabila, which in turn insists on a pullout before it will sit down at the negotiating table.

M23 military leader Sultani Makenga, who was hit with UN and US sanctions last week over alleged atrocities in the DR Congo, flew into Kampala on Monday for "military talks" with regional army chiefs, rebel spokesman Amani Kabasha told AFP.

However, Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga told AFP he was "not aware" of any invitation extended to Makenga.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on Sunday for the M23 to lay down their arms and withdraw from Goma in line with the appeal by Kabila and the presidents of neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda at the weekend summit in Kampala.

Kabila, who was returned to power last year in a hotly-disputed presidential election, met M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero in Uganda on Saturday but no breakthrough was reported.

M23 fighters seized Goma, capital of the resource-rich North Kivu province, last Tuesday, dramatically escalating a conflict that has claimed civilian and military lives, forced thousands to leave their homes and created a humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations issued a damning report last week accusing Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, of backing the rebels who it says have carried out murders, rapes and abductions in their sweep across the east.

Both countries vehemently deny the allegations.

In just one week, the rebels expanded their area of control from one small corner of North Kivu to cover almost the entire province, an area twice the size of Belgium and rich in diamonds, precious metals and mineral wealth.

The group, which has a list of grievances against Kabila and his government, seized Goma with little resistance from UN peacekeers and the regular DR Congo army, which abandoned munitions as it fled including rocket launchers with a range of up to 120 kilometres (75 miles).

The rebel fighters, who first launched their uprising in April, even threatened to march all the way to the capital Kinshasa, which lies about 1,500 kilometres to the west of Goma.

On Monday, several rebel fighters were seen on the streets of Goma, although in few numbers than in previous days, while taxis were back on the roads and shops were open in the lakeside city.

Troops from the United Nations peacekeeping mission MONUSCO were also on patrol. UN forces last week were criticised for allowing the rebels to take Goma, but the peacekeepers stressed they did so to avoid further bloodshed.

UN deputy secretary for humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos said last week that the conflict had prevented aid workers from getting even basic aid to badly hit areas and children were among those who had perished in the fighting.

Bodies -- civilian and military -- could be seen lining area roads last week and Amos warned that young men were afraid of being pressed into military service and girls were scared of being raped.

UN figures show some 1.6 million internally displaced people in North and South Kivu, including 285,000 newly displaced between July and September.

The African Union on Sunday joined the Kampala summit of Great Lakes countries to call on the M23 to pull back 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Goma for peace negotiations to begin.

The M23 is a group of former rebels who were integrated into the army under a peace deal on March 23, 2009. They say this was not honoured by the government, leading them to mutiny in April this year.

Rebels also seized Sake, a strategic town that sits at the junction of the main road south to neighbouring South Kivu province and its capital Bukavu.

Government troops unsuccessfully tried to retake the town on Thursday. Since the failed operation, the area has seen no new combat. An AFP photographer saw several rebels about three kilometres south of Sake on Monday.

Government soldiers were regrouped further south in the town of Minova.

"All is calm, it's the status quo," army spokesman Colonel Hamuli said.

A panel of UN experts on DR Congo has said that Rwanda not only funds and arms the M23 but also supervises ground operations, describing Rwandan Defence Minister James Kabarebe as the de facto head of the chain of command.

Analysts say there could be no other explanation for a force numbering no more than 3,000 men being able to overpower regular Congolese forces and seize a such large chunk of land in the resource-rich east.

Their assault raised fears of wider conflict erupting in the chronically unstable region, the cradle of two wars that ravaged the country from 1996 to 2002.