GOMA, Congo (AP) — Congolese soldiers took back control of this strategic city of 1 million on Monday, though the rebels who occupied it for two weeks continued to stake out positions just 3 kilometers (1.6 miles) away, threatening to seize it anew if Congo fails to meet their demands.
Crowds cheered the soldiers as they arrived in Goma's main barracks in trucks, and women rushed forward to kiss the troops. Their return comes 13 days after the city fell to the rebels, who are widely believed to be backed by Rwanda.
In a worrying sign, however, the M23 rebels remained in tactical positions in the hills nearby, saying they were waiting for the government to respond to their grievances before deciding whether to try to retake the city.
The rebels claim to be fighting for the better implementation of a March 23, 2009, peace accord, which saw them integrated into the national army. Analysts say the real reason for the rebellion is Rwanda's desire to annex territory in the mineral-rich mountains at the border between the two countries.
After a nearly two-week occupation, the M23 rebels agreed to leave Goma over the weekend under intense international pressure, including fresh sanctions from the U.N. Security Council. Their withdrawal was conditional and their commanders initially they would retreat to 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside the city with the caveat that Congo's government must begin negotiations with them no later than 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon.
As the deadline expired, journalists saw a column of rebel fighters walking to elevated positions overlooking the city. Others were building a tent on a western hill. Some in groups of three took positions under trees along the road leading north from Goma.
"We gave Kinshasa a 48-hour deadline, and we are now waiting for these 48 hours to expire," rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama said by telephone as the deadline neared. "You should call Congo and ask them what they plan to do. They have not yet contacted us. And we are waiting to see what happens, before pronouncing ourselves."
Despite the rebels' retreat from Goma, which was a pre-requisite set by the Congolese government for negotiations, Congo's President Joseph Kabila has not yet made clear if the government will engage in talks. On Sunday, government spokesman Lambert Mende said the president would listen to M23's grievances and then give them an answer.
As the rebels' deadline neared Monday, Mende said he had nothing new to say on the matter. Later, in a government communique, Mende said Congo "congratulates itself on the departure of M23 from the city of Goma this weekend and is happy to confirm the enthusiasm with which the population of this town greeted (the security forces) who came to secure the city."
In recent weeks, the enormous, jungle-covered nation of Congo, whose capital is more than 1,000 miles away from this provincial eastern city, inched closer to war with its smaller, but more developed neighbor, Rwanda, which is accused of arming the M23 rebels, as well as sending soldiers across the border.
Congo's Interior Minister Richard Muyej, speaking to reporters in Goma, said that they are working hard to fill the power vacuum that was left by the rebels' departure. "We shall work very hard to re-establish the authority of the state as fast as possible," Muyej said.
Residents whose lives were upended two weeks ago when rebels invaded the town on Nov. 20 tried their best to go about their lives. Most shops had re-opened, despite uncertainty about the coming hours.
A woman selling secondhand clothes at the Virunga market said she had no choice but to work.
"We're not going to wait forever, are we?" said Anette Murkendiwa. "I need to feed my children."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay in Goma, Congo and Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, also contributed to this report.