* Rebels seeking to win broad popular support locally
* Residents tired of war, graft, want change but are wary
* Region's vast mineral wealth fuelled conflict for years
* "We're hostages to the situation" says local policeman
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Hours
before rebels captured the eastern Congolese city of Goma on
Tuesday, more than a thousand prisoners hammered a hole through
the prison wall and escaped.
"This is going to have a big impact on the security of the
city," said a local magistrate who was afraid to give his name.
The mass prison break highlights the challenges the M23
rebel movement now faces in holding and administering Goma and
the expanding territory it has captured in a region long fought
over for its rich mineral deposits.
The M23 insurgents rolled into this neglected lakeside town
at the foot of a volcano after government forces abandoned their
positions. U.N. peacekeepers, after using helicopter gunships
against the rebels, said they could not defend the city, arguing
they had a limited mandate.
But the rebels need security and a functioning
administration if they are to win broader support.
In a sign that nerves are still stretched taut, a
mid-afternoon burst of gunshots this week sent residents
scrambling for cover in the city's mud-choked back streets.
"Normally this road is one big traffic jam, you can't move.
But look at it today," said Georgette Bithondo, selling petrol
in plastic bottles. "We're suffering, we're scared."
Behind her, porters sat idly on their wooden carts. Banks
and many shops remain closed four days after the rebels entered.
Food prices are rising too. A measure of beans, a staple
food, now costs 1,000 Congolese francs ($1.07), from 800 francs
a week ago, while flour is up more than half at 500 francs a
measure in markets - all this in a country where 80 percent of
the population live on less than a dollar a day.
African Great Lakes region leaders, who fear the escalating
eastern Congo rebellion could drag the African continent's heart
into a wider war, called on M23 on Saturday to abandon their
offensive and quit Goma.
Congo and U.N. experts accuse neighbour Rwanda of backing
and directing the rebels, a charge strongly denied by Kigali.
A QUESTION OF TRUST
Yet some among Goma's one million people are ready to give
the rebels a chance to succeed where President Joseph Kabila's
national administration, 1,000 miles away to the west in
Kinshasa, has failed.
North Kivu province, of which Goma is the capital, and much
of eastern Congo has experienced two decades of conflict between
marauding rebels, militias and government troops that has
inflicted killings, rapes and lootings on millions of its
traumatised civilian population.
Popular anger at the national government's slow pace of
reform, corruption and rights abuses runs so deep that M23 may
even find a receptive audience.
Their plan, simply, is to persuade local administrators to
work for them.
"You don't have to do much to win the trust of people here.
The situation was so bad before," said Jean-Pierre Kabirigi at
the Goma-based Pole Institute, a socio-political think-tank.
"But they have to be quick and they have to start with the
question of security."
Asked how long the rebels had to show progress, Kabirigi
said: "One month, I would say."
Goma is not short of sceptics.
"We've known other rebellions which happened in the same
way. Look how those turned out," said 18-year-old Lorraine
Kitme, a trader in the city's main Virunga market where row
after row of wooden stalls lay empty much of the week.
"M23 arrive, say they're here for the people, but they'll
stab us in the back," Kitme said.
Rebel commanders have urged the city's civil servants to go
back to work. At Goma's main border crossing into Rwanda, dozens
of trucks were still stranded in no-man's land on Saturday
awaiting entry into the import-dependent city.
"Return to your work and be brave in your job," Vianney
Kazarama, an M23 spokesman told a senior immigration officer.
"We will not tolerate corruption and impunity."
"Yes, my colonel," came the meek reply.
"HOSTAGES OF THE SITUATION"
Immediately after winning control of Goma, the rebels
embarked on a charm offensive, seeking to win the support of the
police, public sector workers and disenchanted youth.
At Goma's ramshackle town hall two days ago, hundreds of
mostly young men gathered to hear a rebel commander call for
their backing. Cautious applause met his appeal for unity.
Next door, a middle-ranking civil servant removed a photo of
President Kabila from its hanging, fuming at his meagre salary
and Kinshasa's failure to develop Goma's dilapidated road and
"We want change and I have faith in M23. We're going to try
and go with them all the way," the civil servant said, declining
to be named in case the government later retook Goma. Several
colleagues nodded in approval.
Asked whether an M23-led administration would bring change,
he said: "That's what we're waiting to see. We're tired of this
His sentiments are echoed across the city, which has been
without power from the national grid and running water after
government forces apparently sabotaged the network as they fled.
On Thursday, some 600 police defected to the M23. The rebels
say hundreds more police officers have also joined their side
and will be responsible for law and order, not their own
fighters - an assertion met with some doubt
"We don't know if we can trust what they say. But we're
hostages to the situation. We have no choice, we have to work
and earn a salary," said one police officer who gave his name as
More complicated will be how the rebels collaborate with the
U.N. peacekeepers who are still present in Goma.
So far, the rebels have not troubled the blue-helmets who
continue their armed patrols, but there have been no talks
between the two groups.
"They are a partner in peace ... but at a certain point in
time they got lost wanting to protect a illegitimate
administration (of President Kabila)," Seraphin Mirindi, a rebel
commander, told Reuters.
"With this diplomatic offensive, we expect to start talking
with MONUSCO (the U.N. peacekeeping force)," Mirindi said.
MONUSCO spokesman Mounoubai Madnodje said the force did not
deal with armed groups.