Boy soldiers fail to halt rebel tide

Congo Civil War: President Kabila vanishes from besieged capital as his rag-tag army stumbles in key battle
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RWANDAN-BACKED rebels, poised to overthrow Laurent Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, claimed yesterday to have taken the last important town in their relentless march on the capital, Kinshasa.

Rebel forces said they had overrun Mbanza Ngungu, 80 miles south-west of Kinshasa, and were consolidating their position, though President Kabila's government denied its last stronghold had gone.

The rebels also offered to talk to Mr Kabila, but their military advance continues. No one in government would reveal the whereabouts of President Kabila, who has disappeared from Kinshasa. It is rumoured he is already holed up in Lubumbashi, Katanga, his tribal homeland.

Rebel successes are hardly surprising given the state of Mr Kabila's army. The experience of 18-year-old Coco Banyele is typical. On Wednesday he was a brave volunteer, trying vainly in the sweltering heat at a stadium car park to learn enough soldiering to help liberate Congo from advancing rebel armies. By yesterday he was in forced retirement, a victim of government disorganisation.

The beleaguered Mr Kabila has vowed to turn back his fast-advancing enemies by turning citizens into soldiers, hopefully backed up by troops from neighbouring countries. But if activities in the stadium car park are any indication, the prospects for his regime are not bright.

For five days Mr Banyele milled about with others in the car park, clumsily trying to learn co-ordinated military marching. Some of the bony recruits stumbled, careered into each other and occasionally fell. Left-right- left was interspersed with lectures about duty and staying calm. There was no food, no water and no apparent plan to give them weapons training or move them to the front.

Eventually tempers flared and a riot seemed possible. Other troops had to be called in to disperse the thousands of would-be soldiers, who were told to stay at home until further notice. "We want to fight, but the authorities were only giving us lessons on marching and morals about being calm. They don't give us food or anything," said the still patriotic Mr Banyele.

Another element in the unhappy mix that makes up Mr Kabila's army has been thousands of soldiers from the infamously larcenous forces of the former dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. In Kitona on the Atlantic coast, thousands of former Mobutu soldiers had been interned in a re-education camp. Mr Kabila did not trust these hard-core Mobutists enough to join the army so kept he them there, where they dined on much propaganda and little food.

According to diplomats, Tutsi-backed rebels succeeded in enlisting many of the Kitona Mobutists to the anti-Kabila cause.

As the war has progressed the former Mobutu fighters have, according to diplomats, succeeded in convincing many more Kabila soldiers to defect.

As one Western diplomat said, the road from Kinshasa down to the western front "seems to be a sort of Bermuda Triangle. They keep pouring in men and materiel and nothing seems to be coming out."

Meanwhile, an incident in Kinshasa on Wednesday encapsulated the mood that has overtaken the city. An emaciated teenage boy crept out of the bushes on the river front in search of food. In grimy shorts and a blue T-shirt caked in filth, he approached roadside traders.

"Rwandan! Rwandan! What are you doing here?" shouted the men, who quickly encircled the frightened boy. "I am not Rwandan," he pleaded. "I am not Rwandan. I am looking for food."

Hands pushed, slapped and punched at him, enraged by his long neck and distinctly Tutsi-like features. Faces, twisted in rage, shouted "kill him, kill him". Within moments two camouflage-clad soldiers toting AK- 47s plunged into the swelling crowd and forcibly grabbed the boy by the arms. The shouting and anger flowed through the crowd like an electric current.

The soldiers commandeered a passing taxi and forced the boy inside. "Leave him to us. We will kill him ourselves," shouted men in the crowd.

What the soldiers said was impossible to guess in the noise and jostling. But they laughed as they pushed the boy into the taxi and, just as he disappeared into the vehicle, one soldier leaned forward and drew his extended index finger across his neck - in the sign of cutting a throat.