GOMA, Congo — Rebels who are believed to be backed by Rwanda once again postponed their departure from Congo's key eastern city of Goma on Friday, defying an international ultimatum for the second time.
The delay raises the possibility that the M23 rebels don't intend to leave the city they seized last week, giving credence to a U.N. expert report that says neighboring Rwanda is using the rebels as a proxy to annex territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo.
An M23 spokesman said Friday morning that for "logistical reasons" the rebels needed 48 more hours to complete their withdrawal, promising that the fighters would leave Goma by Sunday.
Later in the day, the rebels attempted to force their way into Goma's international airport to seize arms belonging to the Congolese military that were being safeguarded there. Although the city fell to the rebels last week, U.N. peacekeepers regained control of the airport and blocked the fighters from entering Friday.
"The (U.N.) is blocking us. They are not letting us organize ourselves logistically, and letting us reach our ammunitions at the airport. This could change everything. We will not leave until this is solved," said M23 Gen. Sultani Makenga.
A regional bloc representing the nations bordering Congo had issued a Friday deadline for the M23 fighters to retreat, after the rebels had thumbed their nose at an earlier ultimatum.
"We are not blocking them from leaving Goma, that is absolutely not true," said Madnodje Mounoubai, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission. "(They) want access to the arms that belong to the FARDC (the Congolese army) stored at the airport. This is something that we will not allow."
Congo, an enormous, sprawling Central African nation, has twice been at war with its much smaller but more affluent neighbor Rwanda.
The M23 rebels are widely believed to be supported by Rwanda, which according to the U.N. report, has provided them with battalions of soldiers, arms and financing.
The eight-month-old M23 rebellion is led by fighters from a now-defunct rebel group, who agreed to lay down their arms on March 23, 2009, in return for being allowed to join the Congolese army. The rebellion began in April, when hundreds of soldiers defected from the military, saying the accord had not been respected.
In fact, most analysts believe the origin of the rebellion is a fight over Congo's vast mineral wealth, a good chunk of which is found in the North Kivu province where Goma is the capital. Starting in the spring, the rebels began seizing small towns and villages in North Kivu, culminating with the capture Nov. 20 of Goma, a population hub of 1 million and a key mineral trading post.
In a sign of how confused the situation was Friday in Goma, a barge carrying around 280 Congolese policemen arrived at the city's port on the banks of Lake Kivu. The policemen had fled when the rebels took the city, and were returning to resume control on Friday, as had been agreed in the accord signed by the rebels and regional leaders in Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda.
The Kampala accord called for M23 to officially hand back the city to local authorities. Because the rebels had not yet left Goma, the officers stayed on the boat.
By evening, the officers were still on the barge, waiting for orders. "We can't spend the night here," said Capt. Bradoc Aoshi.
The one positive sign was the movement of troops in the two areas that M23 captured after they took Goma.
In Sake, some 27 kilometers (18 miles) west of Goma, reporters saw a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) long column of M23 soldiers moving out. The column of soldiers was at least 1,000-deep. They carried their weapons, including mortar launchers on their heads and rocket-propelled grenades on their backs.
In London on Friday, the British government announced that $33.7 million in general support that the U.K. was due to pay to Rwanda in December is not being disbursed due to Rwanda's role in the Congo conflict.
In Washington, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed an amendment Thursday night imposing sanctions on those providing financial, material, or technological support to M23.
"M23 has demonstrated an unconscionable disregard for human life and Congo's territorial integrity and seems determined to sink Central Africa in another deadly, devastating war that could set the region back a generation," said Sen. Chris Coons, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs
"The actions of M23 rebels, as well as those who aid and abet the M23, are deplorable and must be stopped immediately," he said.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay contributed from Sake and Goma, Congo.