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UN guards Congo town against M23 onslaught

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UN peacekeepers in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo have stationed tanks around the key city of Goma to try to head off a possible attack by M23 rebels.

The deployment came on Thursday as Ban Ki-moon, the UN chief, urged the presidents of DR Congo and its rival Rwanda to "defuse tensions" over the rebellion.

An AFP photographer said about a dozen UN tanks were stationed around 25km north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on a road linking the city to Rutshuru which the rebels seized briefly at the weekend.

At least two Congolese army tanks were also seen on the road.

The rebels, who have seized a number of towns along the Ugandan border, denied plans to advance on Goma, the AFP news agency reported.

Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, DRC's ambassador to Britain, said that his country was trying to "give peace a chance" and that an emergency meeting bringing together foreign and defence ministers from the Great Lakes region had been called by Uganda to resolve the crisis.

Rwanda blamed

The Great Lakes region is made up of Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.

Karubi insisted Rwanda was backing M23 rebels, who take their name from the March 23, 2009, peace agreement they signed with the Congolese government, paving the way for them to be integrated in the national army.

They had previously belonged to the National Congress for the Defence of People (CNDP).

"The United Nations group of experts came up with a report saying there's no rebellion in eastern Congo. It's ... Rwanda which attacked the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rather than focus on M23, let's talk about CNDP which was integrated in the political system [and] in the army," Karubi said.

"Since 1998 we did say the same thing but Rwanda denied. It was under the pressure of the international community that they accepted that they were in Congo. Today it is exactly the same scenario. We have evidence; we can prove it [and] we've been joined by the United Nations."

Rwanda has denied accusations it is supporting M23 rebels, who split from the government army in March in protest at wages and conditions and have been fighting ever since.

Human cost

Karubi, however, told Al Jazeera that the rebellion started when the DRC government tried to arrest rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda, who served in the CNDP, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Ntaganda, nicknamed "terminator" in his home region, had been made a general in the Congolese army following the March 2009 agreement.

UN officials and the DR Congo government fear that M23, which has added fighters in recent weeks, might be planning to target Goma.

But a diplomat in Kinshasa said this now appeared unlikely.

"Everything in the way that the mutineers have withdrawn from Rutshuru indicates that they don't intend to take big towns like Goma," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

To try to resolve the crisis Ban this week spoke to Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and his Congolese counterpart, Joseph Kabila, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

Ban "expressed grave concern" over reports that the M23 "are receiving external support and are well-trained, armed and equipped", said Nesirky.

The UN's mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, is one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in the world.

It is stationed in the country's east, which has remained unstable since 1997 when Kabila's father waged a guerrilla campaign that toppled Mobutu Seseko's government.

Neighbouring Uganda also warned that fighting between the rebels and Congolese troops risked destabilising the wider region.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including government troops, have fled fighting into Uganda in the past few weeks.

"The crises and conflicts affecting eastern DRC can rapidly destabilise the country and also spread even to the entire region," the Ugandan foreign ministry said in a statement.

"The armed conflict in eastern DRC has increased forced displacement of populations."

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