Foreigners flee Congo mayhem

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The Independent Online
FOREIGNERS WORKING in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, were fleeing yesterday as a rebel army advanced from the east.

The United States closed its embassy at the weekend and flew its remaining staff out of the country. France said it did not plan to close its diplomatic mission, but has been arranging evacuations for French and other foreign citizens.

A French government aircraft carrying 187 people fleeing the fighting arrived in Paris yesterday. Another 180 Belgians also flew out of Kinshasa. Some 350 Lebanese, most of them women and children, arrived at Beirut airport. About a hundred other foreigners flew to South Africa. An unknown number of foreign nationals crossed the Congo River by ferry to Brazzaville, capital of the neighbouring Congo Republic.

The government of President Laurent Kabila announced that it was securing bases in the east of the former Zaire to attack the rebel forces, apparently composed of ethnic Tutsis backed by the Tutsi-led state of Rwanda.

The President himself, however, has almost certainly joined the exodus from the capital. The latest reports said he was now in the southern city of Lubumbashi, a stronghold from his own days as a rebel leader before he overthrew President Mobutu Sese Seko in May last year.

Rebel leaders at a rally of 4,000 supporters in the eastern town of Bukavu at the weekend declared they were heading towards Kinshasa. "Kabila should quit power, or we will capture him alive." one of the rebel commanders was quoted as saying. The rebels said their forces were now only 95 miles east of Kinshasa.

Foreigners fleeing the capital dismissed government claims of repelling the rebels' advance. "Kabila's forces are very nervous," Arnold Roeder, a German, said at a South African air base at Pretoria. "It looks like the rebels have a great chance to take over Kinshasa. Kabila's forces look weak."

The rebel advance has created a climate of hysterical suspicion in Kinshasa, aggravated by newspaper and radio reports accusing France and the US of engaging in a sinister plot to destabilise the country and reimpose colonial rule in the former Belgian possession. Student demonstrators at the weekend waved anti-American placards and some vented their fury by attacking foreigners in the streets.

The uprising in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo is linked to the genocide perpetrated against neighbouring Rwanda's Tutsi minority by the Hutus in 1994. The slaughter brought a Tutsi-led government to power in Rwanda, which has proved militantly determined to strike at its Hutu enemies both in and outside the country.

Mr Kabila was brought to power in Kinshasa with Tutsi support, from Rwanda and from Tutsis in the east of Congo. A year on he has grievously disappointed his former backers, partly through his failure to halt continuing Hutu incursions into Rwanda. Now the Tutsis seem determined - and able - to remove him.