M23 rebel fighters rest outside Goma, a city they have seized in the eastern… (Dai Kurokawa / European…)
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Regional leaders pressured a Congolese rebel group Saturday to give up its military gains and stop an offensive that could lead to a catastrophic war in eastern Congo.
After an emergency summit in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania urged the M23 rebels to withdraw. Rebels on Tuesday took Goma, a city of about a million people in eastern Congo. Congo government forces did not put up a fight.
There was one big problem for the summit: The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, whose government was accused in a United Nations report Wednesday of commanding and supporting the M23 rebels, wasn't there. In a last-minute snub, he sent his foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, raising questions about whether regional peace efforts can succeed.
Rwanda denies involvement in eastern Congo, but it stands to gain from rebel control of the area, which is rich in gold, tin and coltan, an important component in laptops and cellphones.
Uganda was also accused in the U.N. report of arming M23.
M23's seizure of Goma and its threat to continue taking territory have sparked fear of a broad, new war in eastern Congo, a region whose wealth in resources has proved a curse to its long-suffering, poorly governed population.
Humanitarian organizations have warned of a mounting disaster with more than half a million people displaced since M23 launched its rebellion.
Eastern Congo has suffered waves of conflict, including mass rapes, recruitment of child soldiers and forced labor for almost two decades, fueled by a toxic mix of corruption, greed and ethnic hatred.
President Joseph Kabila's capital is in Kinshasa, in far western Congo on the opposite side of the enormous country, and he appears far too weak to exert control in the east. His army is unreliable.
Goma is near the border with Rwanda, and Kagame's army is one of the most disciplined and effective forces in the region. Eastern Congo is also so remote and prone to complex, entrenched conflict that it tends to be sidelined in international diplomacy.
A joint statement by leaders meeting in Kampala called on M23 to stop fighting, back off from threats to remove Kabila's elected government and withdraw at least 12 miles from Goma. But analysts see Rwanda as the key to any peace deal because of its influence with M23.
M23 is now moving south from Goma toward Bukavu, another strategic city in eastern Congo, and government forces are regrouping to try to stop the advance, news agencies said.
The regional leaders — Kabila, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki — urged creation of a small regional force to control Goma airport jointly with the Congelese army and M23 rebels. Rebels have not responded to the proposal.
The leaders also called on a U.N. peacekeeping force in the area to provide security in neutral areas around Goma, and said police disarmed by the rebels should return to work.