SAKE, Congo Regional leaders meeting in Uganda on Saturday called for an end to the advance by M23 rebels toward Congo's capital, and also urged the Congolese government to sit down with rebel leaders as residents fled some towns for fear of more fighting between the rebels and army.
The leaders called on M23 rebels to vacate the city of Goma within two days and for local police recently disarmed by the rebels "to be rearmed so that they resume duty," according to a statement issued by the regional bloc called the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.
M23 is made up of hundreds of officers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then the rebels have occupied vast swaths of territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo. The rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army. The rebels took Goma without much of a battle, with the Congolese army fleeing in disarray and U.N. peacekeepers holding fire.
M23 leaders insist they will attempt to capture the Congolese capital of Kinshasa if Congo's President Joseph Kabila does not negotiate directly with them.
The regional bloc encouraged Congo to "listen, evaluate and resolve the legitimate grievances of M23," according to the statement out of Uganda's capital, Kampala.
Leaders for the rebel movement said they were in Uganda on Saturday, however, Ugandan officials said M23 representatives were not invited to the summit and denied reports that Jean-Marie Runiga, the M23's political leader, was in the country for separate negotiations with the Ugandan government.
"This is a summit for regional leaders, not a negotiation meeting. The rebels cannot be in the summit," said Okello Oryem, Uganda's deputy minister of foreign affairs.
The Rwandan president was also not at the summit, despite reports by the U.N. that the country, along with Uganda, is helping to back the rebel movement. The two countries deny the charges.
In eastern Congo, hundreds of residents in the towns of Sake and Minova walked toward a nearby village on Saturday to avoid more fighting between rebels and the army, who they accuse of looting and rapes.
A resident making the 5-mile walk to Kirotshe said that soldiers from the U.N. peacekeeping group in Congo, known as MONUSCO, told them to leave Sake.
"They told us the army might attack again at Sake," said the resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of her safety. "Soldiers from MONUSCO told us all to go to the hospital."
The U.N. soldiers, however, would not confirm that they had told locals to take refuge in Kirotshe or whether they thought the army would attack.
A surprise attack by the Congolese army on Thursday afternoon pushed the M23 rebels out of Sake for a few hours. By the evening, however, M23 fighters had recovered the town and forced the government troops to flee 15 miles south to Minova, on the shore of Lake Kivu.