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GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo consolidated their positions in the hills around the seized city of Goma on Monday, as their leader flew to Uganda for talks aimed at convincing them to withdraw.
African leaders are scrambling to contain the latest violence in eastern Congo, where nearly two decades of conflict has been fuelled by political and ethnic rifts and competition over vast minerals resources.
Rebel M23 fighters captured Goma last week, eight months into an insurgency U.N. experts say is backed by Rwanda, after Congolese soldiers withdrew and the world's largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping force gave up defending the city.
The fighting raised fears for the safety of civilians and of a worsening refugee crisis, as well as triggering protests targeting the government and the United Nations by people furious at them for failing to stop the rebels' advance.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila met M23 rebels for the first time at the weekend after a summit in Uganda where regional leaders gave M23 two days to leave Goma, but gave no specific consequences. The U.N. experts also accuse Uganda of backing the rebels, an allegation Uganda denies.
Rebel leader Colonel Sultani Makenga was on his way to 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 it could not immediately confirm Makenga's visit but that it was probable because Uganda's chief of defense forces, Aronda Nyakayirima, was meant to enforce the call by regional leaders for M23's withdrawal from Goma.
"To kick them out by force would be difficult. Many people would die. But I fear that in the event negotiations fail a full-blown war will resume," said Goma resident Thierry Malick, a 29-year-old flight security officer with Kivu Air.
M23 fighters on Monday showed no signs of pulling back, instead fanning out into the hills south of rebel-held Sake, about 25 km (15 miles) from Goma, and less then 20 km north of government positions.
Within the lakeside city at the foot of a volcano, more than a dozen M23 fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles guarded the central bank building, while others were dotted around the city.
U.N. experts say Rwanda, a small but militarily powerful neighbor that has intervened in Congo repeatedly over the past 18 years, is giving orders to the rebels and supplying arms and recruits. Rwanda and M23 have denied the accusations.
Rebel leaders share ethnic ties with the Tutsi leadership of Rwanda, which says Hutu perpetrators of Rwanda's genocide have taken shelter in eastern Congo, which has big reserves of gold, tin and coltan - an ore of rare metals used in making mobile phones and computers.
The last big war in Congo from 1998 to 2003, drew in six countries, and regional leaders want to nip in the bud any further destabilizing conflict in the country the size of western Europe, especially now the region is attracting significant foreign investment in its raw materials.
Another rebel spokesman in Goma, Vianney Kazarama, confirmed M23 fighters were taking up positions around Sake, and said a withdrawal from Goma was unlikely.
"We're not refusing to leave it, if the security of the population can be guaranteed," he said, standing outside the city's central bank building. "But who is going to protect 1 million people. MONUSCO? The armed groups in the town hiding? We are the protector of the people."
MONUSCO is the name of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo. France described its decision to stop defending Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, as "absurd".
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 road into government-held Minova, just south of Sake, is being guarded by several army roadblocks, while in the center of town hundreds of soldiers were milling around in the markets or lounging in the streets.
"I can't believe what happened to us in Goma ... But we have to carry on fighting," one soldier, with a large bandage over a wound on his head, told Reuters.
The M23 group is named after a March 23, 2009 peace deal that integrated Tutsi rebels into the army, but which they say the government violated.
Late last week the rebels sent reinforcements into Sake to push back a government counter-offensive there.
Congo has said it will not negotiate with the rebels until they pull out of Goma, but the rebels said the government was in no position to set conditions on peace talks.
A diplomat said the African Union was due to hold a Peace and Security Council meeting later on Monday to discuss the crisis which has displaced thousands people.
Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa, Elias Biryabarema in Kampala, and Jonny Hogg in Minova; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Bate Felix; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alison Williams