GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels in Congo believed to be backed by Rwanda postponed their departure Friday from the key eastern city of Goma for at least 48 hours for "logistical reasons," defying for a second time an ultimatum set by neighboring African countries and backed by Western diplomats.
The delay raises the possibility that the M23 rebels don't intend to leave the city they seized last week, giving credence to a United Nations Group of Experts report which argues that neighboring Rwanda is using the rebels as a proxy to annex territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo.
"We will be out of Goma on Sunday, and will go back to our initial positions in Kibumba," M23 rebel spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama said, referring to a town 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Goma.
Later in the day, however, the military chief of the rebels, Gen. Sultani Makenga said that U.N. peacekeepers were hampering their movements, and that this could extend their withdrawal timeline even further.
"The (U.N.) is blocking us. They are not letting us organize ourselves logistically and letting us reach our ammunitions. This could change everything, we will not leave until this is solved. It depends on the MONUSCO now," he said, using the acronym for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.
The regional bloc representing the nations bordering Congo had issued a Friday deadline for the M23 fighters to retreat, after the rebels had thumbed their nose at an earlier ultimatum. Kazarama's announcement suggests the rebels are dragging their feet. But their retreat was visible in the town of Sake, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Goma, where reporters saw a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) long column of M23 soldiers move out. The agreement brokered by neighboring nations had called for the rebels to leave the region of Masisi, the last area that the fighters took last week, retreating first to Sake, then to Goma, and then to a position 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Goma.
The column of soldiers was at least 1,000-deep. They carried their weapons, including mortar launchers on their heads and rocket-propelled grenades on their backs. They walked in an orderly fashion. All in silence. The people of Sake stood to the side watching, not clapping, nor shouting.
The M23 rebels are widely believed to be supported by Rwanda, which according to the U.N. report, has provided them with battalions of soldiers, arms and financing. Congo, an enormous, sprawling Central African nation, has twice been at war with its much smaller but more affluent and better organized neighbor.
The eight-month-old M23 rebellion is led by fighters from a now-defunct rebel group, who agreed to lay down their arms on March 23, 2009, in return for being allowed to join the ranks of the Congolese army. M23 takes its name from the date of that accord, and the rebellion began in April, when hundreds of soldiers defected from the military, saying that they were not well paid and were marginalized within the army.
But most analysts believe the origin of the rebellion is a fight over Congo's vast mineral wealth, a good chunk of which is found in the North Kivu province where Goma is the capital. Starting in April, the fighters seized a series of small towns and villages in North Kivu, culminating with the capture on Nov. 20 of Goma, a population hub of 1 million and a key, mineral trading post.
In a sign of how confused the situation remained on Friday in Goma, a barge carrying around 280 Congolese policemen arrived at the city's port on the banks of Lake Kivu. The policemen had fled when the rebels took the city, and were returning to resume control on Friday, as had been agreed by the regional bloc.
The accord called for M23 to hold a ceremony to officially hand back the city, but as the rebels have not yet left Goma, the barge arrived and no one could decide what to do with the police. The officers remained in the boat as their superiors attempted to negotiate with the M23 occupiers.
Jean-Marie Musafari, police spokesman in Goma, explained that the police were coming to fill the security vacuum that was supposed to have been created by M23's withdrawal. "They are Goma policemen who fled the fighting. They are loyal to the government. We are finishing a meeting to determine what they will do," he explained.
But by evening, the officers were still on the barge, waiting for orders. The policemen were hungry and bored, some had fallen asleep and others were impatient. "We can't spend the night here," said Capt. Bradoc Aoshi.
Although discreet, the M23 presence in Goma was still noticeable Friday. Political officers of the movement were going about their business Friday morning, giving no sign of packing up to leave the city.
"We are leaving Goma to give a chance to peace and to make (Congolese President Joseph) Kabila assume his responsibilities," assured Stanislas Baleke, an M23 political cadre.
Although several U.N. reports have clearly indicated Rwanda's role in propping up the rebels, the U.S. and others have so far not publicly called out Rwanda, with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton sidestepping a question on the issue at a press conference this week.
But on Friday the British government announced that it will not release its next payment of budget support to Rwanda. United Kingdom International Development Secretary Justine Greening said that the >21 million ($33.7 million) of general budget support, which was due in December, is not being disbursed as a result of Rwanda's role in the conflict in Congo.
"The government has already set out its concerns over credible and compelling reports of Rwandan involvement with M23 in DRC. This evidence constitutes a breach of (our) partnership principles," he said, "And as a result I have decided not to release the next payment of budget support to Rwanda."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay contributed from Goma, Congo.