By Richard Lough
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov 26 (Reuters) - R ebels in Democratic Republic of Congo consolidated their positions in the hills around the seized city of Goma on Monday, as their leader flew to neighbouring Uganda for talks aimed at urging them to withdraw.
World powers are scrambling to contain the latest violence in eastern Congo, where nearly two decades of fighting has been fuelled by political and ethnic rifts and competition over vast minerals resources.
Rebel M23 fighters captured Goma last week, eight months into an insurgency U.N. experts say is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, after Congolese soldiers withdrew and U.N. peacekeepers gave up defending the city. The advance raised fears for the safety of civilians and of a worsening refugee crisis.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila met M23 rebels for the first time at the weekend after a summit in Uganda where regional leaders gave M23 two days to leave Goma, but gave no specific consequences.
Rebel leader Colonel Sultani Makenga is on his way to Uganda's capital Kampala at the invitation of the head of the Ugandan military, M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha told Reuters by telephone from Goma.
The Ugandan military said it could not immediately confirm Makenga's visit but that it was probable because Uganda's chief of defence forces, Aronda Nyakayirima, was meant to enforce the call by regional leaders for M23's withdrawal from Goma.
M23 fighters on Monday, however, showed no signs of pulling back, instead fanning out into the hills south of rebel-held Sake, about 25 km (15 miles) from Goma, and less then 20 km north of government positions.
"I could see rebels on one hilltop outside Sake and there were only three rebels on the streets of Sake itself," a U.N. source in Sake said.
Another rebel spokesman in Goma, Vianney Kazarama, confirmed M23 fighters were taking up positions around Sake, and said a withdrawal from Goma - a city of one million on the edge of Lake Kivu - was unlikely.
"We're not refusing to leave it, if the security of the population can be guaranteed," he said, standing outside the city's central bank building. "But who is going to protect one million people. MONUSCO? The armed groups in the town hiding? We are the protector of the people," he said.
MONUSCO is the name of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo - the world's largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping force, which has been criticised for allowing Goma to fall to the rebels. France described its decision to stop defending the city, the provincial capital of South Kivu, as "absurd".
The road into government-held Minova, just south of Sake, is being guarded by several army roadblocks, while in the centre of town hundreds of soldiers were milling around in the markets or lounging in the streets.
"I can't believe what happened to us in Goma ... But we have to carry on fighting," one soldier, with a large bandage over a wound on his head, told Reuters.
U.N. experts claim Rwanda, a small but militarily powerful neighbour that has intervened in Congo repeatedly over the past 18 years, is giving orders to the rebels and supplying arms and recruits. Rwanda and M23 have denied the claims.
Rebel leaders share ethnic ties with the Tutsi leadership of Rwanda, which says Hutu perpetrators of Rwanda's genocide have taken shelter in eastern Congo, which has big reserves of gold, tin and coltan - an ore of rare metals used in making mobile phones and computers.
The M23 group is named after a March 23, 2009 peace deal that integrated Tutsi rebels into the army, but which they claim the government violated.
Late last week the rebels sent reinforcements into Sake to push back a government counter-offensive there.
Congo has said it will not negotiate with the rebels until they pull out of Goma, but the rebels said the government was in no position to set conditions on peace talks.
A diplomat said the African Union was due to hold a Peace and Security Council meeting later on Monday to discuss the crisis which has displaced thousands people.