The Congolese government denied reports on an Angolan invasion and said Kitona was in Congolese hands. However, the rebels confirmed they had lost the town only hours after they took the strategic city of Kisangani.
It is likely that the rebel forces, whose offensive began three weeks ago, will now launch an all-out push to take the capital, Kinshasa, where Zimbabwean troops are now waiting to prevent them ousting President Kabila.
The mounting reports of external intervention in the former Zaire raises the likelihood of the war in the country spilling across its borders into central and southern Africa. South Africa has warned that a conflict of unprecedented proportions now threatens to engulf the region.
Yesterday Angola's President Eduardo dos Santos and the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who has attacked the South African President Nelson Mandela for rejecting military intervention in Congo, failed to show at an emergency meeting of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) called to discuss the Congo crisis. Mr Mandela, chairman of the SADC, is pushing for a negotiated settlement to the war.
Yesterday Richard Cornwell, of the South African Institute for Security Studies, said intervention by foreign governments had given heart to Mr Kabila, whose days were otherwise numbered. "It looks as if Kabila thinks he can fight this out now," he said.
In spite of their public denials of involvement, Angola and Zimbabwe are reported to be sending in arms and aircraft as well as men. Four Angolan Mig jet fighters are reported to be standing at Kinshasa airport, while journalists travelling with rebel units have also come under fire from planes which the rebel commanders believe belong to Zimbabwe.
While Zimbabwean forces were not expected to tip the balance of the war, most analysts believe that the Angola, which possesses a superior fighting force, could make a difference. However, Angola is fighting its own war at home against Unita rebels, which beggars the question just how many troops it can afford to deploy in Congo.
While journalists waited for the SADC to unveil a peace plan last night, Mr Mugabe claimed that SADC's defence organ, which he chairs, decided last week in favour of military intervention in Congo.
Meanwhile ethnic Tutsis continue to disappear in Kinshasa where hate radio has been inciting violence against them, insisting that the rebellion is in fact an invasion by Rwanda and Uganda. Ironically it was these two countries which put Mr Kabila in power just over year ago.
Mr Kabila has turned out to be an ungrateful placement. Not only has he failed to prevent anti-Ugandan and Rwandan government forces using eastern Congo as a base, but he has flirted with his former sponsors' enemies.
Rwanda is the major sponsor of the current rebellion because Hutu extremists, responsible for the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis, are still launching attacks into the country from across the Congolese border.
The Rwandan Southern African Alliance, an organisation set up to promote trade between South Africa and Rwanda, claimed that the Congolese troops had kidnapped at least 20 Tutsis in Kinshasa. Coordinator Atilla Alpman said the 20 were friends and relatives of RSAA members.
The US has four ships with 1,200 marines at the port of Matadi, east of Kitona, on stand-by to protect Americans.Reuse content