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GOMA/MINOVA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo strengthened their positions around the eastern city of Goma, defying regional calls for them to leave by Monday even as their leader flew to Uganda for talks.
Ugandan officials said they were hoping to persuade Colonel Sultani Makenga to withdraw and prevent a descent into all-out war in a region dogged by nearly two decades of conflict fuelled by competition over vast minerals resources.
But as Makenga travelled, his M23 fighters fanned out into hills surrounding Goma less then 20 km (12 miles) north of government positions in Minova, on the shores of Lake Kivu, said the rebels and a witness.
The rebels, who say they want to overthrow the government in Kinshasa, captured Goma last week after Congolese soldiers withdrew and U.N. peacekeepers were forced to give up defending the city.
The rebel advance took place eight months into an insurgency U.N. experts say is backed by neighboring Rwanda - an accusation Kigali and the rebels deny.
Regional leaders meeting at a summit on Saturday gave M23 a 48-hour deadline to leave Goma.
But on Monday, more than a dozen M23 fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles guarded the central bank building in the city, while on the outskirts, others demanded a tax of $320 from trucks queued up to enter.
M23's military spokesman, Vianney Kazarama, confirmed rebel fighters were taking up positions around the town of Sake, about 25 km west of Goma, and a withdrawal from the city itself was unlikely.
"We're not refusing to leave it, if the security of the population can be guaranteed," he said, standing outside Goma's city's central bank building.
"But who is going to protect one million people? MONUSCO (the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo)? The armed groups in the town hiding? We are the protector of the people."
Rebel leader Colonel Sultani Makenga was in Uganda's capital Kampala at the invitation of the head of the Ugandan military, M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha told Reuters by telephone from Goma.
The Ugandan military said Uganda's chief of defense forces, Aronda Nyakayirima, would reinforce the call by regional leaders for M23's withdrawal from Goma.
Outside Minova, bleary-eyed pro-government militia fighters clad in flip-flops and shorts and brandishing assault rifles manned roadblocks on routes leading into the town from rebel-held territory.
"There are troop deployments in the hills (around Minova)," one officer with the government army, known as the FARDC, told Reuters. "A counter-offensive against the rebels is expected."
Inside Minova, the government's new chief of land forces rallied his troops less than a week into his post.
"We don't need reinforcements. We have many men, what we need is leadership," said General Francois Olenga Tete. Congolese President Joseph Kabila suspended Olenga's predecessor on Thursday after a U.N. report accused him of supplying weapons to other eastern armed groups.
Entire villages have been emptied by the fighting which has raised fears of a worsening refugee crisis and triggered protests targeting the government and the United Nations by people furious at them for failing to stop the rebels' advance.
A local doctor said at least 14 women had been raped in Minova during a three-day rampage by government soldiers, who scrambled back into the town after being routed by the rebels.
"The soldiers here came from the front. Of course they're angry, almost the whole town was pillaged," Minova resident Mbogos Simwerayi said.
U.N. experts say Rwanda, Congo's small but militarily powerful eastern neighbor, is giving orders to the rebels and supplying arms and recruits.
Rwanda has intervened in Congo repeatedly over the past 18 years under the pretext of hunting Rwandan Hutu militias responsible for its 1994 genocide and protecting Congo's own Kinyarwanda-speaking minority.
"The impunity that Rwandan President Paul Kagame has enjoyed for his past interventions in Congo has empowered him to continue to support the M23 rebel group," said Professor Timothy Longman of Boston University.
The last 1998-2003 war in eastern Congo, which has big reserves of gold, tin and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in making mobile phones, drew in six countries.
In a sign local administrators were heeding the rebels' call to return to work in Goma, customs officers at the city's border with Rwanda worked on clearing a backlog of trucks while policemen stood at crossroads directing the modest traffic flow.
The M23 group is named after a March 23, 2009 peace deal that integrated Tutsi-dominated rebels into the army, but which they say the government violated.
Congo has said it will not negotiate with the rebels until they pull out of Goma, but the rebels have said the government is in no position to set conditions on peace talks.
The African Union said on Monday Tanzania would send a battalion as soon as possible to help secure Goma's airport. MONUSCO had been asked to monitor an eventual M23 withdrawal from the city, the AU said.
Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa, Elias Biryabarema in Kampala,; Writing by Bate Felix and Richard Lough; Editing by Andrew Heavens