Congo on the edge as Kabila falters

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Laurent Kabila was yesterday reported to have quit Congo's capital for the remote city of Lubumbashi as rebels prepared to march on Kinshasa and Westerners left the country. Only a year after the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko to Mr Kabila's forces, the six million people of the capital were stocking up on supplies as they prepared for more fighting.

While the government insisted that it was prepared to fight the rebels massing about 250 miles away for control of Kinshasa, and some 2,000 Kabila supporters rallied in the capital yesterday, its grip on the vast central African nation was weakening. After three days of uncertainty about his whereabouts, a spokesman said the president had decamped to the country's second city, Lubumbashi, capital of his home province of Katanga, and that a cabinet meeting would be held there. The spokesman would not say when Mr Kabila had left Kinshasa.

Although the capital was calm yesterday, anti-foreign sentiment was growing as Mr Kabila's government played on nationalist sentiments to rally support, and Westerners began to leave the Congo. The United States closed its embassy after 20 Americans left the country on a charter flight, and another aircraft arrived to fly out 180 Belgians. Belgium urged all 3,000 of its nationals in the country's former colony to leave. A 190-member marine commando unit left yesterday for Ascension Island to provide help if needed to rescue Britons.

A first wave of foreigners took a ferry across the Congo River to Brazzaville, capital of the neighbouring Congo Republic, after negotiations between France and the Kinshasa authorities to reopen the river border, which had been closed for a week. "There are around 700 people who have asked to leave," said a French embassy spokesman, adding that France had planes in Brazzaville to fly out French and other nationals blocked by a lack of commercial flights. Further ferry crossings are planned today.

The government radio station in Kinshasa accused several foreign broadcasters of airing false reports about rebel gains. Foreign journalists in Kinshasa have been harassed and repeatedly detained for brief periods.

Foreign ministers from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Namibia were due to meet senior officials of Mr Kabila's government over the weekend to discuss the crisis, which threatens the precarious stability of central and east Africa. The government is accusing both Rwanda and Uganda of backing the rebel offensive launched at the start of the month. Both countries deny the claim.

Congo's relations with its former Rwandan and Ugandan allies have been deteriorating since Mr Kabila took power in May last year. Last month he expelled Rwandan soldiers from Congo. Uganda and Rwanda have been angered by the Congolese president's failure to contain attacks on their territory by renegade groups based in eastern Congo.

The Congolese Information Minister, Didier Mumengi, was keen to stress that the meetings in Kinshasa were not a sign the government was pulling back from its war effort. "We're getting ready to launch a counter-strike at the rebels who are in Lower Congo," he said. Asked if a political settlement to the fighting could be found, he said: "As long as there are foreign troops on our soil the only solution will be a military one."

The rebellion began in early August when Tutsi-led rebels, closely linked to Rwanda, fought government troops in Kinshasa and opened up fronts in both the east and west of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. It is widely believed that the Rwandan forces which helped Mr Kabila overthrow his predecessor last year have now turned against him, and are supporting the rebel offensive.

In eastern Congo, Bizima Karaha, Mr Kabila's former foreign minister- turned-rebel, said opposition leaders had formed the Congolese Democratic Movement to replace the government. "We have a name, we have a programme, we have leaders," Mr Karaha said from the eastern town of Bukavu. "We're trying to be as intrusive as possible."