GOMA, Congo -- Pressing ahead with their seizure of cities in mineral-rich eastern Congo, the M23 rebels said Wednesday that they are fighting to control all of this sprawling country and to topple President Joseph Kabila's government.
Following their capture of the strategic city of Goma a day earlier, the rebels took the nearby town of Sake on Wednesday, as they moved toward the provincial capital of Bukavu.
"Kabila has to go. We want our country back," said M23 Col. Vianney Kazarama to cheers from thousands gathered at the Goma stadium. "We are now going to Kinshasa. No one will divide this country."
Nearly 3,000 Congolese army soldiers and police on Wednesday defected to the rebels in Goma and turned in their weapons at the stadium rally.
Even as the M23 rebels consolidated their gains, the presidents of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda called upon them to give up the territory they now control.
The M23 is made up of hundreds of officers who deserted the Congo army in April this year. Neighboring Rwanda has supplied soldiers and equipped the rebels with sophisticated arms, including night-vision goggles and 120mm mortars, according to a report by United Nations experts that is to be published Friday. The U.N. report accuses the rebels of grave human rights abuses, included murder, rape and use of child soldiers.
The M23 is largely made up of ethnic Tutsis who want to extend their control over eastern Congo and its valuable deposits of gold, copper, coltan and timber. Their campaign, and alleged support from Rwanda, has its roots in the 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutus. Since then, eastern Congo has been plundered by several rebel forces and foreign armies in conflicts that killed millions of people.
The speed with which the M23 has seized Goma and the surrounding countryside exposes the weakness of Kabila's government, 978 miles to the west in Kinshasa, experts said.
"It's a setback for Kabila. He wasn't even capable of reforming the army, and the fall of Goma demonstrated that," said Felix Bafilemba, a Goma-based analyst for the Enough Project. "It marks the beginning of the end for Kabila's regime."