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Congolese policeman in riot gear keeps an eye on Goma residents including street children who gathered for an anti Kabila demonstration supported by the M23 rebel movement in Goma, eastern Congo, Wednesday Nov. 28, 2012. Rebels holding Congo’s main eastern city on Wednesday gave mixed signals on whether they would abandon Goma but one thing was clear: For now, the insurgents still hold the strategic locale and no military force seemed strong enough or possessed the will to quickly push them out.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Photo Credit: The Associated Press

GOMA, Congo — Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda began retreating from the territory they seized last week and pulled out of the region of Masisi, their military leader said Wednesday, in the first concrete sign that international pressure has stemmed the advance of the fighters.

Gen. Sultani Makenga, the military chief for the eight-month-old rebellion known as M23, said that his fighters intend to abide by an ultimatum issued by neighboring nations that called for their withdrawal from Goma by Friday. He said he had ordered his fighters to retreat along the southeastern axis from Masisi to Goma, and they will then leave Goma via the northern route to Rutshuru.

“My soldiers began to retreat from Masisi yesterday. We will go via Goma and then after that we will retreat to 20 kilometers (12 miles) past Goma toward Rutshuru,” Makenga told The Associated Press on Friday. “I think that by Friday we will be able to complete this.”

The M23 rebel group is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then they have occupied numerous villages and towns in mineral-rich eastern Congo, culminating in the seizing of the crucial, provincial capital of Goma last week. Although they claim to be fighting because the Congolese government has not upheld their end of a March 23, 2009 peace deal, an in-depth report by the United Nations Group of Experts says that M23 is a Rwandan proxy fighting in order to control eastern Congo’s lucrative mines.

Congo’s government spokesman Lambert Mende, who is based in the country’s capital over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the west, confirmed that they had received reports of troops pulling out of Masisi.

“Yes, there are reports of movements (of their fighters out of Masisi) but we won’t label it a retreat until it’s over. They have played this game with us before, where they say they are moving and then find a reason not to,” Mende said. “There will be no negotiations with Congo until they are 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside the Goma city limit.”

A regional bloc representing nations in the Great Lakes region of Africa had issued a deadline calling for M23 to retreat no later than Friday to 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Goma.

In Goma, there was skepticism over the rebels’ claim and confusion, after the leader of M23’s political wing insisted that the fighters were not leaving the city of 1 million that is the economic heart of one of Congo’s mineral-rich regions.

M23 Vice-Minister of the Interior Theophile Ruremesha told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s government needs to meet their wide-ranging demands for them to leave the city.

“Kabila has to meet our demands if we are to pull out,” he said. “For humanitarian reasons we cannot leave the town in the hands of just anybody,” he said. “Creating the neutral force will take some time.”

While some fear M23, which in only eight months has a record of carrying out executions and of forcing children into its ranks, other residents of this lakeside city are afraid of the undisciplined Congolese army that was pushed out of Goma by the rebels on Nov. 20. Dozens of people came out for an anti-Kabila rally, holding placards and pieces of cardboard decrying the distant government’s inept handling of the conflict.

“I want Kabila to leave because he hasn’t helped the people and our country hasn’t moved forward since he came to power,” said one of the marchers, Augustin Katombo. “I think M23 should stay because we don’t want the army to come back.”

About 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers were in Goma when M23 attacked on Nov. 20 and government forces fled, but the well-armed U.N. peacekeepers did not intervene, saying they lacked the mandate to do so. One of their main missions is to protect civilians.

Many people expressed anxiety about a possible attack by the Congo army, which lies in wait several dozen miles (kilometers) to the south of Goma.

“This is a nerve-wracking situation. It fluctuates every hour and we cannot even plan for tomorrow,” said Goma resident Ernest Mugisho. “The M23 needs to give a clear message because for us, the population, this is not good.”

The rebel group has a large new cache of 1,000 tons of weapons, including heavy artillery, that were abandoned by the fleeing Congo army last week, according to M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga. Six flatbed trucks carrying crates of ammunition were seen Tuesday being driven by M23 soldiers north from Goma.

A U.N. group of experts said in a detailed report last week that M23 is backed by neighboring Rwanda, which has provided them with battalions of fighters and sophisticated arms, like night vision goggles.


Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay contributed to this report from Goma, Congo.

An internally displaced Congolese man listens to the radio Saturday. 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 leaers as residents fled some towns for fear of more fighting between the rebels and army.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KAMPALA, Uganda — Congolese officials are in talks Sunday with representatives of M23, the rebel group that last week took control of the eastern Congo city of Goma, according to Ugandan officials.

Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga said that he is mediating discussions to help both sides reach a settlement that would end a violent rebellion that has sucked in Uganda and Rwanda, which both face charges of backing the rebels.

M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga is leading the rebels in the talks, according to Rene Abandi, M23’s head of external relations.

Abandi, who is now based in the Ugandan capital Kampala, said M23 representatives met with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in a tense, two-hour meeting that was also attended by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

“He tried to accuse us and we also tried to accuse him,” Abandi said of the meeting with Kabila on Saturday. “It was a meeting to have a common understanding of the principle of negotiation. (Kabila) said he’s ready to negotiate directly with us.”

But some Congolese officials in the capital Kinshasa have said there will be no talks with the rebels unless they quit Goma. A regional summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in Kampala — attended by both Kabila and Museveni — on Saturday called on the rebels to leave Goma and urged Kabila to listen to the “legitimate grievances” of M23.

Despite the regional leaders’ demands for the rebel forces to withdraw from Goma, M23 soldiers were visibly in control of the city Sunday. M23 also still held Sake, a contested town 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Goma. The Congolese army attacked the town Saturday, but M23 retained control.

M23 President Runiga said that withdrawal from Goma was “under consideration” and, while M23 did not oppose the idea “in principle,” no decision had been taken yet, according to M23 spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama, speaking to the Associated Press. Runiga is still in Kampala and no official response to the demands from the regional summit is expected before his return to Congo, said Kazarama in Goma.

“We are waiting to hear from Runiga when he will be back from Kampala,” said Kazarama.

“Since May we have asked to meet with President Kabila,” said Amani Kabasha, M23’s deputy spokesman. “At least now there has been contact. The door is open for talks to find the durable peace that eastern Congo needs.”

Government troops remain in Minova, 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Sake, following a failed attack on M23 last Thursday. Unruly Congo army soldiers had looted residents for the third night running, according to a United Nations official in the town who insisted upon anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. U.N. peacekeepers patrolled Minova throughout the night to protect civilians from the rampaging government troops.

In Minova, Congo Gen. Francois Olenga, who was recently named head of the Congolese army, held meetings with area commanders . “The country is in danger. We cannot defend our country with traitors,” said Olenga to The Associated Press.

Pickup trucks packed with Congolese army soldiers armed with automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenades sped through Minova to regroup at the local soccer stadium. Army soldiers were also walking in the streets, looking for food. Some army soldiers were selling cigarettes on the side of the road.

An M23 communiqué sent Saturday night claimed that government regiments were moving into attack positions around rebel-held territory.

“Let them attack us!” said M23 spokesman Kazarama. “Do they have the strength? Absolutely not, we are in a strong position.”

Junior public health major Megan Dietz signs a banner Thursday morning in the West Mall as part of an organization fair for World AIDS Day. Student groups participated in the fair to bring awareness to and fundraise for topics related to HIV/AIDS.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Only 23 percent of sexually active students at UT use condoms regularly, said Guli Fager, health education coordinator for University Health Services at the fifth annual World AIDS day conference at UT.

The conference, hosted by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the English department and student advocacy group Face AIDS, explored the current state of AIDS treatment and the policies that allow the disease to continue to spread.

Fager said she was concerned to find that of students who choose to have sex, only some regularly use condoms. She said condoms are the only way to protect from HIV without having both partners tested for the disease. Fager said her data came from 800 student respondents to a National College Health Assessment survey of UT students in 2010. She said outside research indicates students may believe testing both partners for sexually transmitted infections or using condoms is not necessary because they trust their partner.

The UT chapter of Face AIDS, a student group dedicated to combating AIDS, spent Thursday hosting free HIV testing for students and coordinating a fair of AIDS awareness booths on the West Mall, president and nursing junior Reba Carethers said. Face AIDS helps those affected by AIDS in Austin, including underrepresented groups often not taken care of by conventional programs, such as incarcerated people affected by the disease, Carethers said.

Carethers said the group also raises funds to combat HIV/AIDS in Rwanda. She said Face AIDS held a Child Back to School campaign this year to help children in Rwanda who have AIDS return to school.

“We raised $2,000 and were able to send 20 kids back to school,” Carethers said. “We found that when we place them back in school it helps a lot more with their disease. They are able to cope better with the disease and even thrive.”

Face AIDS holds fundraisers throughout the year, such as the a condom fashion show where contenders dress up in creations made entirely out of condoms and their wrappers, Carethers said. She said the group also sells beaded red-ribbon pins handcrafted in Rwanda for $4.

“The cost of one pin can stop a mother-to-child transmission,” Carethers said. “It also pays for three months of anti-viral treatment for the child. In sub-Saharan Africa, life-saving retroviral medicine for one person costs 40 cents per day. That’s nothing compared to the cost in the U.S.”

Sociology professor Matthew Flynn said the cost of comparable anti-viral treatment in the U.S. for one year ranges from $10,000 to $15,000.

“That’s due to a variety of contributing factors, but patent laws play a big part,” Flynn said.

Neville Hoad, English professor and member of the advisory committee to the Rapport Center said the mix of Face AIDS’ good work and the tolls AIDS has taken on its victims were the reasons for mixed reactions to World AIDS day.

“On one hand it’s a remembrance for those who have fallen to the illness,” Hoad said. “On the other hand it’s a celebration of the steps we’ve taken to prevent its spread.”

Printed on December 2, 2011 as: Face AIDS promotes HIV testing