Congo rebels prepare for long haul in war to topple Kabila

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FROM THE capital, Kinshasa, government victory may seem at hand. But from rebel-held eastern Congo, insurgents plotting their next move say time is on their side.

"The war is going on," said Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, a rebel leader, yesterday.

Mr Wamba insisted the government forces would have been routed if it were not for the Angolans and Zimbabweans sent in to fight alongside those of President Laurent Kabila. "But they cannot stay long. And we're going to continue fighting no matter what," he said.

On Sunday, the rebels suffered a major defeat in the month-old campaign to topple Mr Kabila when they pulled out of Matadi, 350 kilometres south- west of Kinshasa - the only remaining air base in western Congo under their control.

Mr Wamba said the rebel force in western Congo - believed to number between 6,000 and 9,000 troops - had to withdraw to avoid being cut in half by Angolan troops.

The result will be a change in tactics: the rebels will split into smaller, mobile groups ready to strike Kinshasa at times, infiltrate the city and lie low until the departure of Mr Kabila's allies, he said.

"It's a matter of what kind of war," said the former Harvard political economy lecturer. "It is my understanding that, now, we are conducting the guerrilla-type war.

"Nobody can rule effectively only with foreign support," he said. "Zimbabwe cannot stay for a long time. Angola may not stay for longer either. They have too many fronts open against them: they have to be in Congo-Brazzaville, they have to deal with (separatists) in Cabinda, they have to deal with Congo-Kinshasa, and they are only 11 million people."

Since the rebels - a coalition of ethnic Tutsis, exiled politicians and disenchanted members of Mr Kabila's army - took up arms, they have seized eastern Congo and closed in on Kinshasa from the Atlantic.

But the intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe appeared to have saved Mr Kabila - at least for now. The result could be a long and exhausting war.

"We are trying to tell our people that this may not be a few weeks' affair. It could be months, it could be years. The more people get that sense that this is a worthwhile struggle, the people will continue struggling," he said.

The rebels still control a string of towns in eastern Congo, including the third-largest city, Kisangani, from where supplies can be ferried on the Congo River to rebels around Kinshasa.

The rebels accuse Mr Kabila of power-grabbing and nepotism. "Fundamentally, this is a problem of how power is being misused," Mr Wamba said. "We need responsible leadership if we want to have stability in Congo and regionally."

Mr Kabila accuses Rwanda and Uganda of sponsoring the rebellion and invading the country.

But the rebel commander, Jean-Pierre Ondekane, said yesterday that the countries backing the rebels had yet to intervene in the war. He warned that they would if the war continued.