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African leaders ask DRC rebels to stop 'war activities'

African leaders meeting in Uganda have issued a joint statement calling on rebel M23 fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo to "stop all war activities and withdraw from Goma." They set a 48-hour deadline.

Heads of state from the Great Lakes region in Africa on Saturday called on the powerful M23 rebel force to cease military activities and leave the city of Goma, which they seized earlier in the week.

The document called on the group to stop "expanding forthwith and stop talk of overthrowing an elected government," also saying that the rebel fighters should "stop all war activities and withdraw from Goma."

The talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala were a response to continued gains made by M23 fighters in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), mostly along the border with Rwanda. Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, is a frontier city between the two countries.

A Ugandan minister said that this message, plus a deadline to conform, had been sent to the M23 fighters.

"The M23 rebels have been given 48 hours to vacate the town and the deployment will take effect after 48 hours from now. The Congolese government will only talk to the rebels after they evacuate Goma," Ugandan Regional Foreign Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem told the dpa news agency.

The paper also suggested temporarily deploying three forces - one from the DRC government, one from the rebels and one neutral force made up of soldiers from surrounding countries - at Goma's contested airport, with DRC army troops only being stationed in the city proper.

DRC military losing ground

Rwandan President Paul Kagame did not attend the talks, sending Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo instead. The DRC government accuses Rwanda of actively assisting the M23 fighters, with a recent UN report also indicating this to be the case.

Negotiators from Uganda, another DRC neighbor accused of having ties to M23, are trying to broker talks between Kabila's government and the rebels - with M23 saying prior to the Saturday summit they would not cede any territory before the talks began.

After Goma, the rebels subsequently seized other settlements, saying their next major target was the capital of South Kivu, Bukavu. They announced an intention to ultimately reach the capital Kinshasa and "liberate" the vast DRC.

A UN peacekeeping force of 17,000 troops, the largest of its kind, called MONUSCO, is stationed in DRC, charged with helping to protect civilians.

M23 is named after a peace accord on March 23, 2009, that was meant to initiate the group into the DRC establishment. Fighters were incorporated into the regular military and the body formed a political party. The group broke away again earlier this year, saying Kabila's government had broken promises to them.

msh/rc (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)