KINSHASA The Democratic Republic of Congo government on Monday dismissed a demand from rebels in the country's east for truce talks, saying that the insurgent force pushing towards the city of Goma was merely a tool of neighboring Rwanda.
The rejection meant that the worst fighting in the area in four years was only likely to intensify, bringing with it a new humanitarian crisis as refugees fled the city.
The M23 rebels had halted their advance about 5 km from Goma on Monday and gave the government 24 hours to start talks or face a new onslaught. They say that Kinshasa broke the terms of a 2009 peace agreement that integrated them into the army as a solution to an earlier rebellion.
A government spokesman said it was not interested in rebel proposals or ultimatums.
"M23 is defined by the government as a fiction created by Rwanda to hide their criminal activities against the DRC," spokesman Lambert Mende said. "It is an ultimatum from a fictitious group that has no real value to us."
United Nations experts back the government contention that Rwanda, which has intervened in Congo repeatedly over the past 18 years, is behind the M23 revolt. Rwanda denies involvement.
Congo is rich in minerals including diamonds, gold, copper and coltan - used in mobile phones. But little money has been spent on developing a country the size of Western Europe.
The government accuses Rwanda of wanting to control the mineral resources by backing the insurgents.
The country was wracked by wars between 1994 and 2003 which killed about five million people. Many eastern areas are still plagued by violence from a variety of rebel groups.
REFUGEES FLEE AGAIN
M23 is led by mutinying soldiers who rose up eight months ago. They have now fought four days of battles to come close to Goma, home to a million people including hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled rebel advances elsewhere.
The city, which sits at the Rwandan border on the north shore of Lake Kivu, is also the capital of North Kivu province and headquarters of a U.N. peacekeeping force.
The rebels have said they do not plan to capture Goma.
But that prospect provoked a new humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees abandoned camps in the north of Goma to escape them, said Tariq Riebl of the British aid agency Oxfam.
Thomas D'Aquin Muiti, head of a local aid organization, said the rebel reassurances were not to be trusted.
"I think everyone in the town is skeptical of M23. The town is emptying. If the international community allows M23 to take Goma it'll be a humanitarian catastrophe," Muiti said.
The United Nations has about 6,700 peacekeeping troops in North Kivu, including some 1,400 troops in and around Goma.
U.N. spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the mission had carried out helicopter strikes in support of the Congolese army at the weekend.
"The situation in Goma is extremely tense," Dwyer said. "There is a real threat that the city could fall into the M23's hands and/or be seriously destabilize as a result of the fighting," Dwyer said in a statement from New York.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the rebel offensive and urged M23 to cease its attacks immediately. The U.N. Security Council made a similar call after an emergency meeting on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Feliz Bate and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Angus MacSwan)