Britons held in Congo as spies

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FOUR BRITONS and one American suspected by officials of spying were being held under "house arrest" in a Kinshasa hotel last night. A Foreign Office spokesman said they were "British officials" in Kinshasa on "legitimate business" and that urgent representations were being made to the government in the Democratic Republic of Congo: "We are treating it very seriously."

The Kinshasa-based newspaper Le Phare reported yesterday that those arrested had several maps of the capital, with circles drawn around the city's main airport and locations where soldiers were deployed.

The regime of President Laurent Kabila is fighting a war in the east of the country, against rebels who last August reached the outskirts of the capital, and there was speculation last night that the arrests were connected with Western interest in this conflict.

Most observers feel that Mr Kabila would have fallen, had it not been for the intervention of Angolan and Zimbabwean forces in the war at that time. The Angolans did not wish to see a government take over in Kinshasa that might give help or a haven to the Unita rebels the Luanda government has been fighting almost continuously since independence in 1975. The motives for the intervention of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe are more obscure, but are assumed to be a mixture of his own private business interests related to mining operations in eastern Congo, and a need to distract his own army from the temptation to remove his disastrous administration from power.

Backing the rebels are President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and the government in neighbouring Rwanda. The rebels are a coalition of ethnic Tutsis - the same ethnic group as that is in charge in Rwanda - and disaffected members of Mr Kabila's army.

Quite what the "legitimate business" of the Britons and the American was in Kinshasa the Foreign Office would not say, but if they were gathering intelligence, as the Kinshasa newspaper suggested, there is bound to be speculation they were working against Mr Kabila.