Congo's M23 rebels are sending a delegation to Kampala, Uganda, to negotiate with the Congolese government on Thursday, the rebels' president said.
"Our delegation will drive to Kampala for talks," M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga told The Associated Press Wednesday.
Runiga said the talks with representatives of President Joseph Kabila's Kinshasa government must be wide-ranging negotiations to cover constitutional and governance issues and should include the Congolese opposition and civic organizations.
"Kinshasa cannot impose its agenda," said Runiga. "We must discuss the agenda with the opposition, civil society and Congolese outside the country."
Runiga spoke in the small town of Bunagana, on the border with Uganda. He sat in a field outside the town, flanked by three armed guards.
When asked why the M23 have only withdrawn to positions 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from Goma, instead of the 20 kilometers (12 miles) agreed upon, Runiga insisted that the rebels had retreated 60 kilometers from Masi, which more than fulfills the 20-kilometer retreat required by the Kinshasa government. Runiga denied that the government said the rebels must move 20 kilometers away from Goma.
The prospect of negotiations in neighboring Uganda comes as the strategic eastern Congo city of Goma, with 1 million people, struggles returns to normal life.
Goma was held for two weeks by the M23 rebels, who now remain just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) away in the hills above the city. Although many shops in Goma have reopened, most banks have remained closed, paralyzing the city's business.
The M23 rebels — who are backed by Rwanda according to the United Nations — have threatened to retake Goma unless Kabila's government starts negotiations.
Despite the rebels' retreat from Goma, which was a prerequisite set by the Congolese government for negotiations, the government has not yet confirmed if it will talk with the rebels. On Sunday, government spokesman Lambert Mende said Kabila would listen to M23's grievances and then respond.
"I hope for Kabila's sake that the negotiations happen, because we have nothing to lose," said M23 political officer Stanislas Baleke. "Next time we won't stop at Goma, we'll go all the way to Uvira (350 kilometers or 218 miles to the south)."
The rebels say they are fighting for better governance and democracy in Congo. But the real reason for their rebellion is Rwanda's desire to annex the mineral-rich mountains of eastern Congo, according to a recently published report by a U.N. group of experts.
Despite the uncertainty, the U.N. peacekeeping force is working with the Congolese government to get Goma back to normal life.
"We are projecting to reopen the airport tomorrow (Thursday), but we cannot guarantee 100 percent at this stage," said Madnodje Mounoubai, spokesman of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO.
Mounoubai said he did not think the presence of M23 rebels just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) away poses a threat to getting the airport to operate again. Humanitarian assistance was already being delivered at the airport on Wednesday. A helicopter flew in a UNICEF delivery of 80,000 vaccines for internally displaced children, he said.
In recent weeks, the enormous, jungle-covered nation of Congo, whose capital is more than 1,000 miles away from Goma, inched closer to war with its smaller, but more developed neighbor, Rwanda, which is accused of sending soldiers and arms to the M23.
Congo's Interior Minister Richard Muyej, speaking to reporters in Goma, said that they are working hard to fill the power vacuum that was left by the rebels' departure. "We shall work very hard to re-establish the authority of the state as fast as possible," Muyej said.
Gouby reported from Goma, Congo.