At a spirited rally on the eastern edges of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a cadre of well-dressed warriors warmly addressed a crowd of thousands in Goma, the city they had conquered a day earlier.

By that time, municipal police officers had surrendered the bulk of their weapons to the invading insurgents. Members of the national military had defected and disarmed. United Nations peacekeepers, who had been stationed in Goma to protect the city, kept a wary eye on the proceedings from nearby facilities and armored cars.

Goma is the capital of North Kivu, a province that has been at the center of regional conflicts for decades. The rebels, members of a group called the March 23 Movement, or M23, captured the city from Congolese forces on Tuesday.

The insurgents’ victory could have grave consequences. Regional tensions are high, and the DRC and surrounding countries already have been devastated by two massive wars between 1996 and 2003, leading to about 5 million deaths and millions more displacements. The old rivalries still run deep.

According to Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst for the human rights advocacy organization Enough, another major clash can be avoided if the international community works with regional actors to address the fundamental issues in the conflict. Until that happens, the situation is dire.

“Eastern Congo is now a powder keg," he said. "[It] could blow up again into a regional war if decisive action is not taken soon to build out a viable peace process."

"Liberation," Again

“The journey to liberate Congo has started now,” said M23 spokesperson Vianney Kazarama at Wednesday’s rally. “We're going to move on to Bukavu and then to Kinshasa [the capital city]. Are you ready to join us?”

"Liberate" is a term familiar to many in the DRC. It was a rallying cry 16 years ago, when an earlier incarnation of the insurgency – the Alliance of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, or AFDL — invaded the DRC with backing from Rwanda and Uganda, overthrew long-ruling tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko, and installed its own leader, Laurent-Desiré Kabila, as the new president in Kinshasa. (Kabila was assassinated in 2001, and now his son Joseph Kabila leads the country.)

Liberation was also a theme in subsequent conflicts, including the one just three and a half years ago when the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, advanced on Goma but settled for a peace agreement with Kinshasa. That March 23, 2009, agreement, which would give the M23 its name, has clearly failed to address the deep and complicated divisions that now threaten to plunge Central Africa into a catastrophic regional conflict.

The history of this ongoing conflict is a complicated one. It is partly rooted is an ethnic rivalry between the Hutus and Tutsis, which led to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda that killed about 800,000 people and was condoned by the Hutu regime then in power there. Tutsis dominate the Rwandan government now, and that administration aims to protect – and often recruit – Tutsis of both Congolese and Rwandan origin in North Kivu, which borders Rwanda.

That province has been volatile for decades: a site of mutinies and rebellions, complicated by networks of allegiances formed according to business connections, rival ethnicities and contested nationalities.

M23 is only the newest incarnation of an old insurgency. As in rebellions past, it was widely believed – and finally reported by the UN officially on Wednesday — that Rwanda, which resents the Kabila administration and seeks to exert control over communities in the North Kivu region, is the driving force behind the M23 fighters.

Those fighters looked respectable in their crisp uniforms and clean boots as they addressed the crowds in Goma on Wednesday. But M23 has committed terrible atrocities against the people of the DRC in recent months; several human rights watchdog groups report that the rebels have raped women, looted villages, performed summary executions, and recruited child soldiers.

Rough Odds

M23 has pledged to go all the way to Kinshasa, a thousand miles west. Rebels have already occupied the small town of Sake, and leaders say that Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province, is next. After that will be Kisangani, in the central DRC.

These are lofty plans for such a small force. Jason Stearns, a political analyst and former UN expert on the Congo, estimates that M23 membership is between 1,500 and 2,500. That doesn’t sound like much, especially considering that the Congolese army is aided by the UN peacekeeping mission, Munosco, which has more than 19,000 troops on the ground.

“While the M23 and its various allies can create disorder and inflict widespread violence –– possibly a strategic goal in itself — it is unlikely that they will be able to control large areas of territory without broadening their social base or receiving further Rwandan support in the form of an overt invasion of eastern Congo,” wrote Stearns in a report this month.

Then again, the Congolese army is notoriously ill-equipped and disorganized. Its corrupt leaders often cannot afford, or else neglect, to adequately feed, clothe or equip their own troops. And Munosco operates under a weak mandate that left it powerless to stop M23’s advance on Goma, much to the chagrin of the international community.

And so, bolstered by weapons and organizational assistance from Rwanda, the M23 has managed an easy victory in Goma – and now, it has momentum.

“No military force has been able to deal with the well-armed M23 rebellion -- neither the Congolese army nor Munosco,” says Lezhnev. “It's unclear about whether they could hold Goma and advance southward, but their numbers are growing, and they are attempting to build alliances in areas outside of North Kivu.”

Work It Out

Diplomacy will be the key to solving the DRC’s problems before they erupt into something bigger.

Rwanda is now fixed in the spotlight. Though it backs M23, it is still receiving development aid from the United States and holding temporary membership in the UN Security Council.

But in the light of M23’s growing threat to regional stability, the U.S. and other major powers who supply aid to Rwanda will have to get tough on the government of President Paul Kagame, long a favorite of the West.

“The only powers that have the ability to pull M23 back are their backers in Rwanda and Uganda [which backs the rebellion on a smaller scale],” said Lezhnev. “There is a way to end this war, if the U.S. and key allies can muster the political will to help engage the region and fire up a viable peace process, working closely with southern and central African countries.”

That’s a tall order since the U.S. has close ties with Rwanda; Kagame is reportedly a friend to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice. But tough action – like sanctions or resolutions for a stronger peacekeeping mission – could be the fastest way to end the insurgency.

Meanwhile, M23 rebels in the north are slowly moving south and east, toward Kinshasa.

Residents of DRC and neighboring countries have reason to be wary of this advancing "liberation." Across the country, memories of recent bloody conflicts, both large and small-scale, are still fresh. And as M23 continues to expand its territory, the threat of new upheaval is increasingly worrisome.