Kinshasa – Democratic Republic of Congo's M23 rebels have pulled back from the city of Goma but they are calling all the shots, leaving an increasingly isolated President Joseph Kabila with tough military and political challenges.
The mining hub of Goma, the main city in eastern DRC, fell to the rebels in November, sparking fears of yet another fully-fledged conflict in the region.
The rebels pulled out last week after their alleged backers Rwanda and Uganda stepped in but the M23 remains within striking distance and wants a raft of political grievances addressed by the government.
"After the departure of the rebels from Goma under pressure from neighbouring countries, the pressure is now on Kinshasa," regional specialist Kris Berwouts told AFP.
The M23 are mainly Congolese Tutsis who were initially part of the former CNDP rebel group that was integrated into the Congolese army under a March 2009 peace pact.
The rebels say the terms of the deal were never respected and want more thorough negotiations with Kabila.
The 41-year-old was reelected in 2011 partly on a pledge to restore stability and further concessions to eastern rebels with links to Rwanda would be unacceptable to many in the opposition and in his own camp.
Things have gone downhill for Kabila since the disputed general election last year that returned him and his party for a new mandate but drew fierce criticism from Kinshasa's Western partners over rigging.
"Donors decided that a re-run would not be feasible, but that they could take advantage of Kabila’s perceived weakness to push for other reforms," read a recent report by the Rift Valley Institute - Usalama Project.
One of those was the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda, a rebel leader nicknamed "The Terminator", who had been a key CNDP leader and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on several counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The pressure increased on Ntaganda when Thomas Lubanga, whom he had served as chief of staff in the Ituri region, was convicted by the ICC in March.
According to the Usalama Project report's author, DRC specialist Jason Stearns, Lubanga's conviction was what "triggered mobilisation in earnest" for what was to shortly after become the M23.
The rebel group only has an estimated 1 500 men but according to a report by a UN panel of experts, it is under the direct command of Rwanda's defence minister, and Kabila is no closer to nabbing Ntaganda.
Analysts have described the Congolese army as a "complete shambles" and with the UN peacekeeping force in the region once again proving its inability to prevent violence, few doubt that the M23 could recapture Goma if their demands are not met.
Both Rwanda and Uganda are accused of backing the fighters, with a UN report quoting sources that over 1 000 Rwandan troops fought alongside the rebels, while Kampala provided logistical support.
Kabila for his part has lost the unconditional support of Angola and Zimbabwe, which backed the army against forces supported by Rwanda and Uganda during the second DRC war (1998-2003).
'Heads must roll'
Relations with Angola were soured by disputes over oil zones and diamond mining areas on the border, while Luanda also stalled the return of Angolan refugees who have lived in the DRC for decades.
On the domestic front, the situation is little better for Kabila, who became president at just 29 after his father Laurent-Desire's 2001 assassination.
In Kinshasa, opposition parties and members of the presidential majority united in protesting at M23's entry into Goma and the idea that the rebels could negotiate with the authorities.
"Heads must roll," was the frontpage headline on Le Potentiel, one of the main papers in the country, soon after Goma fell.
Summoned before parliament to explain the fall of the town, Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo declined to answer questions. Kabila himself has remained largely silent.
People in Kinshasa are also scandalised by the prospect of talks with M23, to such an extent that the government has banned street demonstrations for fear that the situation might degenerate.
Kabila is in a difficult position to consider rebel demands, in particular their better representation in the political life of the eastern Kivu provinces and the protection of their Tutsi community.
Since the 2009 peace deal, Kinshasa has "only feigned the integration of the CNDP into political institutions, and likewise the group appears to have only pretended to integrate into the Congolese army", the International Crisis Group said in a report in October.
One of the thorniest aspects of the problem is access to precious resources of coltan, used in mobile phones, and gold and cassiterite, which is a vital source of tin.