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Can UN deal with M23 threat to Goma?

With just 400 Congolese troops in Goma, UN voices concern about possible attempt by rebel group M23 to retake city.
Last modified: 22 Feb 2013 13:42

I am back in Goma. The streets are as dusty as ever, and the mood sombre. One man that recognises me says: "Do you think we will have peace?"

At the border with Rwanda, there is plenty of bustle and noise, the refugees that were streaming out have been replaced with traders coming in. 

The city is now being secured by Congolese police as well as the UN's peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO. However, looting and crime at night is common. 

At its base, the UN force commander for DR Congo, Lieutenant General Chander Prakash, remembers me from the last time we met in June 2011. 

What surprises me is how open this softly spoken general is about the UN's concern about another possible attempt on Goma by the rebel group known as M23. 

"There are currently several hundred rebel fighters at a location called Munigi heights on the outskirts of Goma [about 4km away from where we are]," he says. 

Munigi Heights is a hillside overlooking the airport and the city. But M23 have held positions there since they withdrew from Goma in December. I ask him why he is so concerned now? 

"There has been a lot of recent movement there," he replies. 

He tells me that more soldiers have been arriving, digging in, and positioning their arms. He says UN forces are currently "stretched to the limit". 

I ask him whether the UN would engage with M23 unlike last time when they failed to fire a shot. 

"I hope you understand I can not divulge our plans. However, we  have learnt our lessons from past," he says.

There is a Congolese goverment commando unit of around 400 soldiers in the city, that is clearly not enough to deal with M23 entering. The rest of the national army, a force of 5,000 or so, is in and around Minova, a town which is about 40km away. 

The UN says it wants M23 to immediately withdraw to 20km from Goma, as per the December agreement. 

Splits within M23?

We have also been hearing from our sources in the region, including the UN, that there are splits at the very top of M23 as to what to do next. 

What is extremely interesting is the involvement of Bosco Ntaganda, the former Congolese general is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court at The Hague and has publicly had very little to do with the group. 

In fact, he has been in hiding for almost a year since he left Goma. 

We are hearing credible reports that Ntaganda is trying to persuade M23 to take Goma again, and we understand he has the loyalty of several top commanders as well as some rebel troops. 

However, the current military head of M23 General Sultani Makenga, a far more cautious type of leader, wants to wait for a peace agreement currently being discussed in Kampala. 

A UN source has told Al Jazeera that he wouldn't be surprised if there was a "shoot out" at some point in the coming days, things have got that bad. 

However, Jean Marie Runiga, M23's political leader, has told Aljazeera that Ntaganda has no say in M23 and what it does next. He insists there are no divisions, and that M23 is still open to negotiations. 

I believe that M23 can go several ways; if it splits, it could weaken the group so much it would be easily defeated by the so-called enforcement brigade the UN is planning to send in the coming months. That agreement is due to be signed on Sunday in Addis Ababa. 

Or perhaps Ntaganda could go it alone, gathering his support and making a dash for Goma.