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Rebels want direct talks with DRC government

M23 rebels have announced they will not lay down their weapons until they hold direct talks with the DRC government. The announcement was made shortly after regional leaders met to decide on a peace plan.

Meeting in the Ugandan capital Kampala on Saturday, heads of state from the Great Lakes region in Africa called on M23 rebels to abandon their threat to overthrow the government in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and to "stop all war activities and withdraw from Goma."

Hours after the regional summit, the political leader of the rebel group, Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, said he had had an initial meeting with Congo's President Joseph Kabila after the summit in the Ugandan capital had ended.

Runiga Lugerero, however, made it clear that any withdrawal would only come about after direct talks between the rebel movement and President Kabila. M23 fighters would defend their positions if Congo's troops attacked, he warned.

"The atmosphere was tense but afterwards, each (side) calmed the debate down because these are not personal problems, but problems of the country" that must be settled, Lugerero told the news agency AFP by phone.

He and Kabila would meet again on Sunday to discuss how the talks would proceed, he added.

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

Regional tensions

The summit was attended by Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo instead of Rwandan President Paul Kagame who has persistently rejected accusations from UN investigators that Rwanda is backing the M23 force.

The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee, amid persistent reports that the M23 rebels have carried out atrocities on local people.

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.

hc/jm (Reuters, AFP)