As regional leaders talked peace in plush hotel rooms a country away, fighting between rebels and government troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo‘s east rumbled on.
On Friday, civilians carrying meager bundles of their belongings continued to stream out of the town of Sake a day after the Congolese national Army and an allied local militia tried – and failed – to retake the town from the M23 rebels.
Where those fleeing can go is unclear. Already tens of thousands of people displaced by the swirl of fighting are struggling to survive in makeshift camps studding the stony countryside.
The rebels pushed on with their offensive, capturing towns and villages around the regional capital Goma – which they have controlled without challenge since seizing it from Congo’s ragtag military on Tuesday. Buoyed by their victory the rebels said they were going much farther – Congo’s capital Kinshasa, a thousand miles to the west.
The continuing advance comes despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
As Goma fell, the three men who are widely seen as having played a central role in creating the conflict – and could play the key role to end it – met for talks at a luxury hotel on the shores of lake Victoria outside Uganda‘s capital Kampala.
On the one side was Congo’s beleaguered president Joseph Kabila – who had just seen his army melt away and angry protestors torch his party offices in several cities. On the other side wasRwandan President Paul Kagame – the man whose own defense minister is in de facto command of the M23 rebels, according to the UN and Congo.
And somewhere in the middle was Uganda’s wily leader Yoweri Museveni, a compromised mediator given that some senior Ugandan officials, including Mr. Museveni’s own younger brother, have been accused by the UN of supporting the rebels.
At a hastily convened press conference on Wednesday the three presidents, looking weary after hours of talks, demanded the rebels stop fighting and pull out of Goma, while Museveni and President Kagame said they could not “entertain the idea of overthrowing the legitimate government of the DRC or undermining its authority.”
“Wherever they [M23] are we shall tell them to go back. The region is saying to them to go back … and I can assure you they will go back,” Museveni said.
For its part, the government of Congo said it would “look expeditiously into the causes of [the rebels’] discontent and address them as best as it can.” Mr. Kabila was noncommittal when asked about the possibility of direct negotiations – the rebels’ major demand.
While the presidents seemed confident about stopping the violence, no one seemed to have told the rebels to stop fighting. Rebel leaders said they would not be withdrawing from Goma any time soon.
Museveni reportedly sent a chopper down to the Congo border on Thursday to spirit M23’s political chief to Kampala for talks, and Kagame and Kabila are expected back in town over the weekend.
But whether Kabila will agree to negotiate face-to-face with the rebels remains the big question, say analysts.
“Given that the FARDC [Congo’s Army] is not strong enough to defeat M23 it’s not clear that he is in a position to block such an agreement. It may be his only choice,” says Laura Seay, a regional expert at Morehouse College in the US. “That said, Kabila only wants to deal with Rwanda, not the M23, as he sees Kigali as the source of M23’s strength.”
And despite intense international pressure to find a solution, both sides remain far apart.
“It’s hard to see what a negotiated solution would look like at this stage,” Ms. Seay says.