By Jonny Hogg and Ed Stoddard
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - When Congo's government army retreated in panic from the eastern city of Goma last month, many observers blamed the poor morale and leadership, ill discipline and corruption that have sapped its fighting capacity for years.
In the hours before Goma fell to M23 rebels on November 20, drunk and terrified Congolese soldiers roamed the streets or huddled in doorways before melting away, witnesses said.
M23's 11-day occupation of the city was one of the worst battlefield defeats for Democratic Republic of Congo's armed forces (FARDC), which at 150,000-strong are among the largest in Africa. They are also backed by 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers.
As recriminations swirl over the Goma defeat, which forced President Joseph Kabila to accept talks with a group he says is a creation of Rwanda, allegations have emerged that betrayal in the army's ranks may have precipitated the rout.
The government has launched an investigation but says it has reached no conclusions; little evidence has come to light beyond anonymous allegations against officers from subordinates who accuse their commanders of selling them out. The general blamed by some denies any such deals with rebels he once commanded.
But the scandal alone shows how deep suspicion runs within an army that has absorbed successive waves of former enemies as a series of civil wars has ended.
One senior FARDC officer who fought the M23 uprising said he believed Goma was lost because of what he called sabotage of the army's fighting capability.
"All of our intelligence was given to M23," the officer alleged, saying that throughout the fighting "there was intense communications with them" from within the government ranks.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because army regulations forbid him from commenting publicly, he said he was convinced former land forces commander, Major General Gabriel Amisi had been in contact with the rebel side. He said he had served alongside the general in the field.
A member of Amisi's military entourage said the general "rejects categorically" allegations of betrayal: "He could never do that, he wants nothing from the rebels," the aide said. "He only just escaped with his life, five of his own men died."
Amisi himself, dressed in colorful robes and sandals, greeted a Reuters reporter at his guarded residence in Kinshasa on Friday. He declined to discuss the allegations. The aide said the general had been ordered by President Kabila not to talk to media about the subject.
An army spokesman, Colonel Olivier Hamuli, said "many factors" led to the debacle, which is being investigated: "As to whether there was treason by General Amisi, I can't say yes or no to that."
Amisi, widely known as "Tango Four" from his old radio call sign, was suspended just days after the rebel capture of the city following a report by U.N. experts alleging he sold weapons to armed groups accused of killing civilians.
Amisi's ties to a previous, Rwandan-backed eastern rebellion during Congo's 1998-2003 war highlight the confused integration process over the last decade that has seen the FARDC absorb tens of thousands of former rebels and militia fighters.
M23 itself is formed largely of men who were rebels, then were brought into the army and then mutinied again, accusing the Kabila government of breaking a deal signed on March 23, 2009.
Congo's army is widely seen as a symptom of the vast central African nation's dysfunctional state, weakened by years of mismanagement, graft and conflict.
This has produced a security vacuum, particularly in the volatile eastern borderlands, a tinderbox of ethnic conflicts where regional powers and local elites compete for political influence and also for resources of gold, tin and coltan, the latter used in the making of mobile phones.
FARDC spokesman Hamuli said the defeat at Goma was "understandable" because "we were fighting the Rwandan army".
Experts tasked by the U.N. Security Council have issued reports alleging Rwanda, Congo's small but militarily powerful eastern neighbor, created, trained and equipped M23 and directly supported its capture of Goma.
Rwanda has repeatedly dismissed this as "fiction".
M23 fighters withdrew from Goma on December 1 under a deal mediated by regional states. But there is little confidence inside or outside Congo that the city can resist a fresh M23 assault.
"WE WERE ABANDONED"
Reuters journalists who covered the fighting around Goma in November noted the contrast between M23's well-armed fighters, with crisp uniforms and practical rubber gumboots, and the often rag-tag government soldiers, some shod only in flip flops.
M23 rebels showed reporters the abandoned FARDC barracks in Goma - ramshackle buildings littered with fly-infested garbage, where tall marijuana plants grew among military maize plots.
"You see how the Congolese army lived. What kind of army is this?" Amani Kabasha, M23's deputy spokesman, said.
Nevertheless, observers on the ground still struggle to fully explain the abruptness of the army's collapse at Goma.
The FARDC's flight led to MONUSCO peacekeepers choosing not to go on resisting M23's advance. U.N. chiefs rebuffed intense criticism, saying their men could not back an army that was no longer present on the ground.
"They put up a formidable fight the first day, then for reasons we don't understand, they just stopped fighting, turned their backs and left," said Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, who heads the local office of Congo's U.N. peacekeeping force, MONUSCO.
Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said the inquiry would probe allegations of racketeering and betrayal among the commanders: "Questions of loyalty have regularly been asked, not just about Amisi," he said. "But there has to be proof."
The FARDC officer who denounced Amisi's role highlighted one incident early in the battle for Goma when he says the general ordered his men to stop fighting after inflicting heavy losses on M23 at Kibumba, 30 km (20 miles) north of the city.
"Suddenly we received the order to stop," the officer said.
"It didn't make sense; it just gave them the chance to regroup and pull together a force that went on to take Goma."
Rejecting the allegations on Amisi's behalf, the member of his entourage in Kinshasa blamed the difficulties of fighting a rebel force that, he alleged, was being supported from beyond the border with Rwanda that runs through Goma's suburbs.
"We didn't have the orders to attack Rwanda, even though we were being fired on from there," the aide to Amisi said.
"You saw the morale of our men - everyone was fleeing pell mell. That's when we realized we couldn't hold Goma."
Despite Rwanda's denials of any backing for M23, a Reuters reporter in Goma during the rebel occupation came across several fighters who did not speak local languages, including one who said: "I am Rwandan, a soldier, we're here to help M23.
"There are lots of us and more are coming every day."
REBELS IN THE RANKS
Amisi is a former commanding officer of many of the M23 fighters. He fought with them in an earlier, Rwandan-backed rebellion as a member of the RCD (Congolese Rally for Democracy) during Congo's 1998-2003 civil war that sucked in neighboring states and in which several million people died.
Independent analysts say he has been under suspicion before.
"This is not the first time Amisi has been accused in undermining the army. There is deep suspicion among officers that he has been a fifth columnist for Rwanda," said Jason Stearns, a Congo expert and author who has written a study of M23 for the Rift Valley Institute's Usalama project.
The integration of rebel and militia fighters into the Congolese army was a major plank of the peace accords that ended the last Congo war. This has meant rebel groups often maintaining command structures - and loyalties - once inside the FARDC. That is the case with M23, which includes Tutsi commanders and fighters who participated in a 2004-2009 rebellion led by Tutsi general and warlord Laurent Nkunda.
M23 commanders like Sultani Makenga and Bosco Ntaganda, who is sought for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, were given high ranks in the army after their re-integration following Nkunda's rebellion. They have now rebelled again.
"While desertion is considered the gravest form of indiscipline in other armies, in the DRC, defected units and commanders have instead regularly been welcomed back into the army - often even rewarded with better opportunities when reintegrated," said Maria Eriksson Baaz, a researcher at the Sweden-based Nordic Africa Institute.
She said this was "very demoralizing" for the troops.
PREDATORS RATHER THAN PROTECTORS
Critics say Kabila has little incentive to improve the national armed forces because a strong military could eventually turn against him.
In April, a report by international and Congolese NGOs said the failure to reform Congo's large and ill-disciplined army had kept much of the civilian population in poverty and insecurity despite billions of dollars of foreign aid for the country.
As a result, more than $14 billion of international aid over 5 years had ended up having "little impact on the average Congolese citizen", the report noted. It faulted international powers for not pushing the government to reform the army.
A little over one percent, or $85 million, of official development aid for the Congo was spent on direct security sector reform between 2006 and 2011, according to the report.
Without reform, Congolese soldiers often act more like predators than protectors and whatever the government probe into allegations of treachery may find, people around Goma remain fearful a cycle of revolt and violence will continue.
Residents in the nearby town of Minova spoke of a three-day rampage of drinking, shooting, stealing and rape by thousands of retreating government troops last month. One local man, Mbogos Simwerayi, recalled: "Everyone suffered with the army here."
The U.N. said on Friday investigations showed FARDC soldiers raped and pillaged in Minova, but it added M23 insurgents also killed civilians and looted when they held Goma.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Janet McBride)