LEFT BEHIND: A DRC rebel fighter collects bullets from the floor at a military barracks abandoned earlier this week by fleeing government soldiers after rebels captured the town of Goma. Picture: REUTERS
LEFT BEHIND: A DRC rebel fighter collects bullets from the floor at a military barracks abandoned by fleeing government soldiers after rebels captured the town of Goma in November 2011. Picture: REUTERS

KAMPALA — M23 rebels said on Sunday they had opened talks with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila, hours after a regional summit called on them to end their offensive in the east of the country.

Stealing a march on the region’s leaders, the political leader of the eastern DRC rebel group, Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, said he had had an initial meeting with Mr Kabila after the summit in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, had ended.

While he was not invited to the summit itself, Mr Runiga Lugerero said he had been able to meet Mr Kabila thanks to the mediation of Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, with whom he had been due to hold talks.

"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, he said by phone. "I think the meeting went very well."

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

Mr Runiga Lugerero’s announcement came just days after Mr Kabila had appeared to rule out talks with the rebel force. And a few hours earlier, in their closing statement, regional leaders at the summit had called on the M23 fighters to stop fighting and pull out of the key eastern city of Goma within 48 hours.

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

The summit was not in the end attended by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Ugandan officials announced earlier on Saturday that Kigali would instead be represented by Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.

Mr Kagame has persistently rejected accusations, not just from Kinshasa but also from United Nations investigators, that Rwanda is backing — and effectively running — the mainly Tutsi M23 force.

Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa said the summit had called on the rebels to withdraw from Goma and reposition themselves at least 20km north of the city. That would correspond roughly to the positions the rebels held around Kibumba before they launched their attack on Goma, the regional capital of mineral-rich North Kivu region.

UN peacekeepers would then take up positions between them and the city, the summit statement said. In exchange, the Kinshasa government would "listen, evaluate and resolve the legitimate grievances" of the rebels.

The M23 was launched by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group integrated into the military under a 2009 peace deal. The mutineers say the terms of that deal were never fully implemented.

In addition to Mr Kabila, Saturday’s summit was also attended by Mr Museveni, of host nation Uganda, President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania.

The rebels captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on Tuesday, and took the key town of Sake, 20km to the west, the next day.

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. Aid agencies fear that this latest uprising could set off another regional conflict, such as the ones in 1996 and 2002.

In the DRC capital, Kinshasa, the interior ministry temporarily banned peace protests on Saturday, blocking students from holding a planned rally. The move came after several thousand women, including Justice Minister Wivine Mumba Matipa and several lawmakers, marched on Friday against the violence.