One day after president Laurent Kabila returned to Kinshasa predicting imminent victory over rebel forces, government and rebels fought an extended battle in a forest area near the Kinshasa airport.
Streets were deserted as nervous soldiers threw up hundreds of road blocks across the city. State radio urged citizens to stay in-doors and Zimbabwean helicopter gunships buzzed the city, flying low along the river shore. Fighting erupted late Tuesday night and continued through Wednesday morning with the sound of explosions and small arms fire heard across the city.
The sound of artillery fire subsided after noon but the thunderous sound of distant explosions could be heard intermittently in the late afternoon.
In the morning, hundreds of citizens fled from suburbs near Njili airport, about 20 kilometres east of this sprawling city of some 4 million people. Tanks, troop trucks and South African-made armoured cars raced through the city around 8am towards Kabila's residence.
In recent days, rebel forces suffered a series of military setbacks as Angola and Zimbabwe sent troops, tanks and aircraft to back Kabila's faltering army.
With Angolan forces moving northeast toward Kinshasa and Zimbabwean troops pushing south, rebels were squeezed between two advancing armies.
But rebel leader Bizima Karaha on Tuesday threatened that rebels would react to the squeeze by attacking Kinshasa.
The extent of the fighting remains unclear, but Mwenze Kongolu, the Congolese justice minister, said about 300 rebel troops were discovered in a forest area known as Mikonga. The fight did not appear to be a full-scale rebel assault, but indicates that rebel troops are closer to Kinshasa than previously believed and potentially preparing for an attack on the airport, that was used to ferry in Zimbabwe troops and arms.
Information minister Didier Mumengi tried to calm the city on state radio, describing the fight as a "mopping up operation" as government troops searched for rebels in civilian clothes who tried to disappear into the local population.
No explanation was offered for the use of heavy artillery against such a small force.
Doctors predicted heavy casualties if fighting hits Kinshasa, because of the dense housing that covers some 30 kilometres east to west and 25 kilometres north to south.
The fighting leaves South African diplomacy in tatters and appears to kill any chance of peaceful settlement. President Nelson Mandela tried to negotiate a cease-fire and pull out of foreign forces.
However, Mr Kongolu and Mawana Nanga Mawampanga, the Congo Agriculture minister and a member of Kabila's inner circle, bitterly slammed South Africa's initiative and criticised Mandela's motives.
Mr Mawampanga said: "If Mandela wants to mediate he has to condemn this as an invasion. If he has one ounce of moral fibre left he will condemn it. I think Mandela is just a puppet of the United States. He sold arms to Rwanda and he doesn't want to lose his customers (by siding with rebels, Rwanda and Uganda)."
The bitterness of the rhetoric against South Africa means the peace process is dead in all but name.Reuse content