Rebel forces in eastern Congo have vowed to “liberate” all of the vast central African country as they began seizing towns near the Rwandan border and spoke of a 1,000-mile march to the capital Kinshasa.
The M23 rebels, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, captured the eastern city of Goma on Tuesday, a provincial capital home to a million people.
Regional leaders called on the rebels to halt their advance and Congo’s president Joseph Kabila appeared to soften his stand yesterday, saying he would look into rebel grievances as the insurgents extended their reach.
“The journey to liberate Congo has started now,” Vianney Kazarama, spokesman for the rebel group, told a crowd of more than 1,000 at a stadium in Goma. “We’re going to move on to Bukavu, and then to Kinshasa. Are you ready to join us?”
Hours later, a rebel unit took control of Sake, a strategic town near Goma on the road to Bukavu, 60 miles away. In the 1990s, the current president’s father burst out of the same area at the head of a rebel force to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko.
The government in Kinshasa issued a statement admitting it had lost the battle but pledging to win the war: “Victory will be ours. That is what the Congolese want.”
The rebels accuse Kabila of failing to grant them posts in the army in line with a peace deal that ended a previous revolt in 2009. The current rebellion also reflects local ethnic tensions, intertwined with Rwanda’s desire for influence over a neighbouring region rich in minerals.
Rwanda backed the insurgency that swept Kabila’s father, Laurent, to power in 1996 after a march across Congo to oust Mobutu, the veteran dictator.
The new fighting has aggravated tensions between Congo and Rwanda, which the Congolese government says is orchestrating the insurgency as a means of grabbing resources, which include diamonds, gold and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in electronics.
The government in Kigali denies the charges and says Kinshasa and world powers have failed to address the root causes of years of conflict in the region.
Kabila and Rwandan president Paul Kagame met yesterday in the Ugandan capital Kampala after holding three-way talks with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni late on Tuesday. African foreign ministers urged the African Union to deploy troops to halt the rebels; and Kabila, Kagame and Museveni ordered the rebels to halt their advance.
After refusing any dialogue with the rebels, Kabila said he would evaluate the causes of the conflict but gave no further details on possible talks.
But there are signs of trouble for Kabila. A reporter saw hundreds of young men with sticks sack the headquarters of Kabila’s PPRD party in Bukavu, in protest at the Congolese government’s failure to defend Goma.
Goma itself was quiet yesterday, but at the rebel rally in the stadium, dozens of members of the security forces who had not fled the city appeared to have joined the insurgents.
“It’s a problem of governance; there’s no food, there’s no money,” said Rashidi Benshulungu, a captain in military intelligence who had changed sides. “I’m not a politician, that’s a problem for Kabila. But we’re following the ARC,” he added, using an acronym used by the M23’s combat force.