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Rebels in Congo demand negotiations

GOMA, Congo — Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda said Sunday they would take back Congo’s city of Goma if the government does not agree to negotiate with them by Monday.

The M23 rebels completed their withdrawal from the strategic eastern city on Saturday, in compliance with an agreement reached between the rebel group and a regional body.

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‘‘It pained us to withdraw from Goma after having lost men on the battlefield to conquer the city. But if it is the price for peace, we accept it,’’ said Bertrand Bisimwa, the spokesman for M23’s political branch. ‘‘There was no external pressure. Friends of Congo have advised us to give negotiations a chance.’’

The M23 rebels took the capital of North Kivu on Nov. 20, after battling the Congolese army for nearly a day. The group had defied two earlier ultimatums to leave Goma, raising the possibility they did not intend to leave and giving credence to a UN report accusing Rwanda of using the rebels as a proxy to annex territory in the mineral-rich eastern Congo.

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 ranks of the Congolese army.

The rebellion, which takes its name from the date of that accord, began in April when hundreds of soldiers defected from the military, saying that the terms of the agreement had not been respected.

Bisimwa said that by Sunday the rebels had not received information on whether the government had decided to negotiate.

‘‘If negotiations have not started by tomorrow at 2 p.m., 48 hours since our withdrawal, or if there are attacks on citizens in Goma, we will take back the city,’’ Bisimwa said.

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