Alarming picture as rebels prepare to leave city in Congo

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NAIROBI, Kenya -- Lootings. Assassinations. A spreading sense of lawlessness.

That was the alarming picture that emerged Friday from Goma, a rebel-held city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, despite vows by the rebels to withdraw peacefully.

Human rights groups said the M23 rebels who captured Goma last week were going on an assassination campaign as they prepared to leave, creating a vortex of crime and confusion.

"I think it will be extremely chaotic over the next few days," said Ida Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

On Friday morning, residents in Goma reported that the rebels were piling cases of ammunition and other looted supplies onto trucks, with some of it heading toward neighboring Rwanda, while a new letter to a U.N. Security Council committee said that the Rwandan army had crossed the border into Congo and had helped the fighters capture Goma in the first place.

Rwandan troops "openly entered into Goma through one of the two official border crossings," said the letter, which was written by Steve Hege, the coordinator of a U.N. investigative panel, and leaked by a third party.

The investigative panel has accused Rwanda -- with help from Uganda -- of creating, equipping and commanding the rebels, and in his letter Hege contended that once the rebels and Rwandan soldiers chased the Congolese army out of Goma, "these troops together took control over the entire city, marching through downtown dressed in a combination of RDF and new M23 uniforms," using RDF to signify the Rwandan Defense Force.

Rwanda has strenuously denied any covert involvement in this recent round of conflict in eastern Congo, which is threatening to destabilize the country.

But Rwanda has sent thousands of soldiers marching across the border to overthrow the Congolese government at least twice in the past, later justifying such actions by blaming Congo for insecurity across the entire region.

Some of Rwanda's staunchest allies, including the United States, have recently cut aid to Rwanda amid the allegations of Rwandan meddling in Congo. On Friday, the BBC reported that the British government had suspended more than $33 million in aid, which Rwanda desperately needs to keep its government running.

Congo and Rwanda seem to be heading into yet another turbulent, acrimonious phase, with tensions growing by the day. It began this spring when more than 1,000 former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army mutinied. The rebels named themselves the M23 after March 23, 2009, the date of a failed peace deal between the two sides.

Most of the rebel commanders were Tutsi, the same minority ethnic group that dominates politics and the economy in Rwanda, and many of them had fought in the Rwandan army.

The rebels indicated this week that they would abide by a regional agreement, signed in Kampala, Uganda, last weekend, to leave Goma.

"And we are continuing with that plan," Bertrand Bisimwa, an M23 spokesman, said Friday afternoon.

He said the rebels had begun withdrawing from Goma and planned to station all troops about 12 miles outside of town, as the agreement in Kampala demanded.

But another rebel spokesman contradicted him, saying rebels would not be able to leave Goma for "logistical reasons" until Sunday, and it seemed the rebels were haggling with U.N. peacekeepers over an arsenal of looted ammunition that the rebels wanted to bring with them.

Aid workers in Goma said Friday that they could not see any sign of a rebel pullout.

"I'm not seeing big movements of soldiers," said Richard Nunn, a community services coordinator for Oxfam. "I still see some rebel soldiers in town. It's very difficult to say what's going on right now."

Other residents reported an increase in carjackings and break-ins, saying that Goma was becoming virtually lawless at night.

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