Congo rebels demand direct talks with Kinshasa By AFP | Monday, November 19  2012 at  16:46

Uruguayan UN peacekeepers look through binoculars at M23 rebel positions on the outskirts of Goma, in eastern DR Congo, on November 18, 2012. Government soldiers were fleeing the eastern city in large numbers as rebels advanced after fresh fighting erupted in the area last week, a UN source said. PHOTO |  

DR Congo rebels who have advanced on the key eastern city of Goma warned Monday they will continue their fight against the government unless it opens direct talks with them within 24 hours, but their ultimatum was swiftly rejected by Kinshasa.

The M23 rebels said in a statement they will "pursue the resistance against the government of Kinshasa until it falls" unless it starts "direct political negotiations" within the next 24 hours and demilitarises Goma and the city's airport.

The government rejected the ultimatum, with spokesman Lambert Mende telling AFP that "these are fictitious forces put in place by Rwanda to hide its criminal activities in DR Congo. We prefer to negotiate with Rwanda, the real aggressor."

The United Nations has also said the M23 rebels, who are ethnic Tutsis, are being supported by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, charges both countries deny.

The rebels, army mutineers whose uprising in April has unleashed fresh unrest in the country's mineral-rich but chronically restive east, were massed at the gates of Goma on Sunday despite efforts by government troops and UN helicopters to stop them.

Were deserted

The UN has warned there was a real threat that Goma could fall to the rebels.

The EU, Britain and France have also expressed alarm at the violence, which has displaced thousands of civilians and flared up again after a three-month truce on Thursday, just two days after the UN and the US imposed sanctions on the M23 leader.

In Goma on Monday, schools were shut and streets were deserted save for rare army or UN vehicles a day after the rebels advanced to near the airport, just a few kilometres outside the city itself.

As government troops and local officials fled the city, according to several sources, the regional governor, Mr Julien Paluku, said he was staying and appealed for residents to do the same.

"There is nothing to fear, the city is protected by the international community," he said according to his spokesman.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon vowed on Sunday that peacekeepers would stay in Goma.