GOMA, Congo - Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda said Sunday they would take back Congo's city of Goma if the government does not agree to negotiate with them by Monday.
The M23 rebels completed their withdrawal from the strategic eastern city on Saturday, in compliance with an agreement reached between the rebel group and a regional body.
"It pained us to withdraw from Goma after having lost men on the battlefield to conquer the city. But if it is the price for peace, we accept it," said Bertrand Bisimwa, the spokesman for M23's political branch. "There was no external pressure. Friends of Congo have advised us to give negotiations a chance."
The M23 rebels took the capital of North Kivu on Nov. 20, after battling the Congolese army for nearly a day. The group had defied two earlier ultimatums to leave Goma, raising the possibility they did not intend to leave and giving credence to a U.N. report accusing Rwanda of using the rebels as a proxy to annex territory in the mineral-rich eastern Congo.
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. The rebellion, which takes its name from that accord, began in April when hundreds of soldiers defected from the military, saying that the terms of the agreement had not been respected.
Bisimwa said that by Sunday the rebels have not received information on whether the government had decided to negotiate.
"If negotiations have not started by tomorrow at 2 p.m. , 48 hours since our withdrawal, or if there are attacks on citizens in Goma, we will take back the city," he said. "We know that President Kabila is not trustworthy, but we want to give a chance for our friends to realize that too."
Despite the rebels' retreat from Goma, which was a pre-requisite set by the Congolese government for negotiations, President Joseph Kabila has not yet made clear if the government will negotiate.
"The head of state said that he will listen to the M23's grievances and re-evaluate the 2009 peace agreement, and then he will give an answer," said the spokesman for the government Lambert Mende. "No one will give them the chance," to return to Goma, he told The Associated Press.
The rebels have demanded the implementation of the 2009 accord that oversaw their integration in the army and the recognition of their ranks, and also positions in the government. Following their seizure of Goma, the rebels have also added a list of demands meant to re-establish good governance in Congo, such as the liberation of all political prisoners, the dissolution of the current electoral commission who was in charge during fraudulent elections in 2011, and the opening of negotiations inclusive of the civil society, the opposition and the diaspora.
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 this spring, the fighters seized a series of small towns and villages in North Kivu, culminating with the capture of Goma, a population hub of 1 million and a key, mineral trading post.
"It's a vicious cycle in which these people rebel and then they are rewarded with high-ranking positions in the army and they can exploit our resources," said Thomas d'Acquin, the president of the civil society in North Kivu.
In Goma, people were worried that violence may flare up again soon if a compromise is not reached.
"We live in fear, it's unbearable," said 38-year-old resident Anatole Bilemba. "The M23 comes, they leave, the Congolese army will come back and then the M23 says they will too. How do we do anything?"
A security vacuum followed M23's departure from Goma, which has not yet been filled by the Congolese army. Only several hundred policemen are securing the city.
In Mugunga, a camp outside Goma, the U.N. confirmed that armed men raped six women and looted displaced people's belongings last night.
Associated Press reporter Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo contributed to this report.