Congo in chaos as rebels advance on Kinshasa

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The Independent Online
THE DEMOCRATIC Republic of Congo - formerly Zaire - was in turmoil yesterday with foreign governments urging their nationals to leave the country, and uncertainty about the whereabouts of President Laurent Kabila.

The Foreign Office warned the estimated 350 Britons in the country to leave, and a commando unit was standing by to assist in a possible evacuation. France said it was sending an Airbus to pick up any foreigners who wished to leave.

Mr Kabila, who toppled the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May last year, has been facing a fast-growing revolt for the past two weeks, led by Congo's ethnic Tutsi community, based in the east of the country in the areas bordering Rwanda.

Yesterday, he was reported to have fled the capital. "The president is not in Kinshasa," a high-level government adviser said. "I can't tell you any more than that." A Western diplomat in Paris said Mr Kabila was in Lubumbashi, his former rebel base, but had no further information.

With rebel forces advancing on Kinshasa from the west, the city awoke yesterday without electricity, radio, television or newspapers. Power was restored to some areas in the early afternoon and state radio began broadcasting with a weakened signal. "We call on the people to remain calm, the president of the republic and the government are doing everything to reverse this situation," the radio said before resuming its barrage of accusations against neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, which Mr Kabila accuses of waging war against Congo.

Kabila aides admitted that the advancing rebels had taken over the power distribution centre at the huge Inga hydro-electric dam in the west. Apart from the capital, Inga also supplies power to the country's mainstay copper and cobalt mines in Shaba province, and to Brazzaville, capital of the neighbouring Congo Republic. With pumping equipment paralysed, Kinshasa residents were reduced to walking the streets with buckets in search of water yesterday.

Meanwhile the UN Children's Fund reported that hundreds of children, some as young as 12, had been rounded up by rebels and government forces to serve as soldiers.