Congo civil war draws in rival neighbours

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CONGO'S NEIGHBOURS yesterday appeared to be wading into battle against each other in the chaotic central African nation, dooming peace talks almost before they had begun.

Rebels backed by Rwanda claimed to be 20 miles from the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, while Angolan troops were reported to have entered the fray to save the Congolese president, Laurent Kabila. Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts by South Africa's President Nelson Mandela to prevent war engulfing central Africa got off to a bleak start.

Rebel forces said they were fighting Angolan troops, who crossed into south-west Congo from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, while fighting also erupted near Kisangani, Congo's third major city, shattering the peace which had reigned since government forces drove off rebels at the start of the three-week-old insurrection.

"The roads [in Kisangani] were so clogged with refugees you couldn't drive anywhere," said an eyewitness by telephone. "A lot of military were retreating from the fighting into town. I think most of them have their civilian clothes ready and when it comes down to it will change out of uniform." Other rebel units claimed to have shot down two Zimbabwean fighter jets south-west of Kinshasa, although Zimbabwe insisted it had no such aircraft in the Congo.

Four days ago Zimbawe's president, Robert Mugabe, became the first leader to send troops into Congo to defend Mr Kabila, exposing deep rifts in the 14-member Southern African Development Community over the crisis. He was invited by Mr Mandela to talks in Pretoria yesterday, along with the other key players - Mr Kabila, President Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda - in advance of today's full emergency meeting of the SADC.

Mr Kabila, however, did not appear. According to a South African presidential aide, Parks Mankahlana, he was "resting on the advice of his doctor". Last night Mr Mandela was still waiting for a promised Congolese delegation, led by the Foreign Minister, Mwenze Kongolo.

Mr Mugabe also failed to turn up. Two days ago he made a scathing attack on Mr Mandela, the SADC chairman, after the South African leader undermined his claim that the organisation "unanimously" supported military intervention. Mr Mugabe said those who did not want to send troops should shut up.

There were rude words too yesterday for Mr Mandela from the Congolese government, furious that South Africa will not accept its claim that the rebellion is in fact an invasion by Rwanda and Uganda. "Young African fighters once relied enormously on President Mandela, but now it seems that age has taken its toll," said Dominique Sakombi, adviser to Mr Kabila. Mr Museveni and Mr Bizimungu's presence in Pretoria probably only reinforced the perception in the pro-Kabila camp that South Africa is on the rebels' side.

Even those who turned up to talk yesterday were rattling their sabres. Mr Museveni, who like Mr Bizimungu, denies invading Congo, said Uganda might be forced to enter the conflict if foreign forces did not withdraw from Congo.

Last year the change in regimes was achieved with relatively little bloodshed. But intervention by divided neighbours threatens a bloodbath this time round. The International Committee for the Red Cross began setting up 14 emergency first aid stations across Kinshasa this weekend.

Former cronies of the late dictator Mobutu now appear to be in league with the minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, which only a year ago chased them from power. Analysts believe they are bankrolling the rebel effort, which is supported by Rwanda because Mr Kabila has failed to prevent Hutu extremists, responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, using eastern Zaire as a base.