* Great Lakes region leaders want rebels to quit Goma
* M23 accuse army of planning counter attacks
* Oxfam says Goma "a mess" but it still able to work there
* Congo bans protests, citing "undeclared state of war"
By Jonny Hogg and Elias Biryabarema
GOMA/KAMPALA Nov 24 African leaders called on
eastern rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday to
abandon their aim of toppling the government and leave the city
of Goma they captured this week.
The appeal came from heads of state of the central African
Great Lakes region who fear that if left unchecked the offensive
by the M23 rebels could drag the volatile, ethnically-diverse
and mineral-rich region back into another bloody conflict.
Meeting in the Ugandan capital Kampala, they urged M23 to
abandon its threat to overthrow the elected government in
Kinshasa and to "stop all war activities and withdraw from
The rebels responded by saying that the Congolese army was
reinforcing in the east in preparation for launching
counter-offensives on their positions.
"M23 warns the government forces against this new military
adventure. We must react with vigour to discourage this new
war-like initiative," the movement's political wing said.
The regional leaders' plan proposed deploying a joint force
at Goma airport comprising of a company of neutral African
troops, a company of the Congolese army (FARDC) and a company of
The leaders told M23 to withdraw from current positions to
not less than 20 km (12 miles) from Goma town within two days,
but did not say what the consequences would be if the rebels did
A spokesman for the Congolese army, known as FARDC, said M23
was illegally occupying territory in the east of the vast
country and started the conflict.
"We'll defend ourselves and let's see what the final result
is," Colonel Olivier Hamuli told Reuters by phone from Bukavu,
the next major city in the rebels' sights.
The rebels, who say they intend to "liberate" all of Congo,
have often accused the government of aggression as a pretext for
their own attacks.
"NO OTHER OPTIONS"
Regional and international leaders are scrambling to halt
the fighting in eastern Congo, the latest bout of violence
fuelled by a mix of local and regional politics, ethnic rifts
and competition for large reserves of gold, tin and coltan.
The meeting in Kampala brought together Congo's President
Joseph Kabila and the heads of state of Uganda, Kenya and
But Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has vehemently denied
accusations by Congo and U.N. experts that his government is
supplying, supporting and directing the M23 rebellion, did not
attend the summit, although he sent his foreign minister.
The Great Lakes heads of state also proposed that U.N.
peacekeepers present in and around Goma should provide security
in a neutral zone between Goma and the new areas seized by M23.
They said police that were disarmed in Goma by the rebels
should also be re-armed so they can resume working.
Congolese Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo indicated
there was no scope for negotiation over the proposals.
"There are no other options other than an acceptance, pure
and simple," Matata Ponyo told Reuters, adding Kinshasa would
fight to the end to defend its territorial integrity.
GOMA SITUATION "A MESS"
In the Congolese capital Kinshasa, authorities banned
protests, citing the need to keep order in what national police
chief Charles Bisengimana called a "undeclared state of war".
Goma was calm on Saturday, but the charity Oxfam said the
city was feeling the strain as more than 100,000 people fleeing
the fighting took refuge in schools and churches.
"The Goma situation is a mess," Tariq Riebl, Oxfam's
humanitarian programme coordinator, told Reuters.
Riebl said M23 was allowing Oxfam to operate.
"The main thing is access, and we have that. They (the
rebels) are not al Shabaab or the Taliban," he said.
Congolese government troops attempted a counter-offensive
against the advancing rebels this week but were forced to pull
back to the town of Minova on Lake Kivu, leaving a trail of
soldiers' bodies and abandoned equipment in their wake.
M23 forces moved south through the hills towards Minova, in
a strategic position on the road to Bukavu, the capital of South
While Kabila's armed forces are on the back foot, analysts
remain sceptical the rebels can make good on their threat to
march on Kinshasa in the west without significant, overt support
from foreign backers.
"Militarily there's a status quo. The M23 can't advance but
the FARDC will have big difficulty retaking the territory they
have lost. I fear for the population," a senior Congolese
military source said.
Kabila, who has said he is willing to hear the rebels'
grievances, appointed a new interim head of ground forces late
General Francois Olenga Tete takes over from former army
boss General Gabriel Amisi, who was suspended on Thursday over
charges he had sold arms to other eastern rebels.