GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels holding Congo's main eastern city on Wednesday gave mixed signals on whether they would abandon Goma but one thing was clear: For now, the insurgents still hold the strategic locale and no military force seemed strong enough or possessed the will to quickly push them out.
A leader of the M23 rebels said they will withdraw only if Congolese President Joseph Kabila's government meets their demands for wide-ranging national reforms and negotiations.
"Kabila has to meet our demands if we are to pull out," M23 vice-minister of interior Theophile Ruremesha told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
A group comprised of regional nations demanded that M23 leave Goma by Friday. Ruremesha suggested that the withdrawal could take longer.
"For humanitarian reasons we cannot leave the town in the hands of just anybody," he said. "Creating the neutral force will take some time."
While some fear M23, which is only eight months old but already has a record of carrying out executions and of forcing children into its ranks, other residents of this sprawling, lakeside city of 1 million are afraid of the undisciplined Congolese army, which the rebels pushed out of Goma on Nov. 20.
At midday Wednesday, about 1,000 residents marched on Goma's main street, blowing tubas and other musical instruments. They called for the M23 rebels to remain and denounced Kabila, who rules this vast nation from the faraway capital, Kinshasa. The marchers began their protest at the base of U.N. peacekeepers in town, then walked down the avenue.
"I want Kabila to leave because he hasn't helped the people and our country hasn't moved forward since he came to power," said one of the marchers, Augustin Katombo. "I think M23 should stay because we don't want the army to come back."
About 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers were in Goma when M23 attacked on Nov. 20 and government forces fled, but the well-armed U.N. forces did not intervene, saying they lacked the mandate to do so. One of their main missions is to protect civilians.
M23's military chief, Col. Sultani Makenga, said that the rebels intend to pull out of Goma and have already started to withdraw forces from Masisi, a village northwest of Goma. Makenga returned from talks in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
When asked if the M23 troops would be out of Goma by Friday, Makenga said: "It will depend on our troops' movement, but we have started to do what we agreed to in Kampala."
Many people expressed anxiety about a possible attack by the Congo army, which lies in wait several dozen miles (kilometers) to the south of Goma.
"This is a nerve-wracking situation. It fluctuates every hour and we cannot even plan for tomorrow," said Goma resident Ernest Mugisho. "The M23 needs to give a clear message because for us, the population, this is not good."
The rebel group has a large new cache of 1,000 tons of weapons, including heavy artillery, that were abandoned by the fleeing Congo army last week, according to M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga. Six flatbed trucks carrying crates of ammunition were seen Tuesday being driven by M23 soldiers north from Goma.
The M23 was created by former rebels who joined, and then defected from the Congolese army.
A U.N. group of experts said in a detailed report last week that M23 is backed by neighboring Rwanda and, to a lesser extent, by Uganda.