Kabila forces struggle to repel rebels

Click to follow
TROOPS loyal to Laurent Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, were struggling yesterday to repel the rebel onslaught on the capital, Kinshasa, while Zimbabwe sent more troops to the heart of the conflict.

This week government successes, achieved with the aid of the Angolan and Zimbabwean military, gave Mr Kabila the confidence to return to the capital from Lubumbashi, where he had been holed up.

Earlier yesterday he was reported to be spending his nights across the Congo River in Brazzaville and commuting by helicopter to Kinshasa in the morning. But by the afternoon, his political chief of staff, Abdoulaye Yerodia, was announcing that the President had left Kinshasa and was "directing the war from elsewhere".

Suggestions that the rebels might abandon their aim of taking over the whole country and settle for securing a stronghold in the east were rebuffed by the rebel leader, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, on Wednesday. Speaking from the eastern city of Goma, he said his fighters were determined to wrest Kinshasa from Mr Kabila. State-controlled radio said insurgent fighters had smuggled guns into Kinshasa in sacks, and began broadcasting the licence- plate numbers of vehicles used by the rebels. Witnesses said several men were shot dead by government troops. The Information Minister, Didier Mumengi, said hundreds of rebels had been taken prisoner.

An announcer on Voice of the People radio: "All enemies must be denounced and arrested." Early in the day bullets could be heard zinging and ricocheting off buildings near the French embassy but later the city was quiet, with soldiers patrolling empty streets.

The rebels face a formidable task, given Mr Kabila's recruitment of Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian troops in his support. They claimed to have killed up to 30 Zimbabwean soldiers, while Zimbabwe admitted to two dead and 15 wounded. President Robert Mugabe, despite criticism at home of his foreign adventure, sent in extra forces yesterday to beef up the 600 troops already attempting to save the capital for his ally, Mr Kabila.

The Zimbabwean leader had to face the wrath not only of opposition newspapers but of his former army commander. Solomon Mujuru challenged Mr Mugabe over the wisdom of his intervention when the President briefed officials of his ruling Zanu-PF party on the crisis last week.

The Financial Gazette independent weekly said Mr Mugabe had "no excuse" to plunge Zimbabwe into a bloody conflict, saying he was on a personal mission to show himself as a power-broker in the southern African region. In an editorial entitled "A journey without maps", it accused him of sacrificing Zimbabwe's long-term interests in the region by backing Mr Kabila. In another article, the political scientist Masipula Sithole said: "Must we die to save this buffoon?"

Mr Mugabe's military drive has angered the South African President, Nelson Mandela, chairman of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community economic club, who has led a regional diplomatic offensive to resolve the crisis.

In a thinly veiled attack on the man who has overshadowed him as a voice for Africa since Mr Mandela's release from prison and assumption of power in South Africa, Mr Mugabe said "hypocrites" were leading the diplomatic option and proposed that it be spearheaded by the Organisation of African Unity.

Zimbabwe's state media have stepped up attacks on Rwanda and Uganda, blaming them for the conflict. The two countries still deny they are involved but say they may intervene to safeguard their security interests. Uganda is believed to have sent troops and tanks to support the insurgents, while Rwanda, considered the main military and political sponsor of the insurgents, has repeatedly threatened to intervene if Zimbabwe and Angola do not withdraw their soldiers.

The threat of Congo becoming a battleground for a number of African armies continues to grow. Angola's involvement was sparked by fears over the security of its border with Congo and the shelter Unita rebels found there. The Angolan Interior Minister, Santana Pitra, yesterday said his country would use all means at its disposal to keep Mr Kabila in power. Namibia has confirmed it has sent troops to back the Angolan effort.

Meanwhile, the Vatican's missionary service said the death-toll in a weekend massacre near the eastern town of Uvira had risen to 207 and could go higher.

The attackers were identified as ethnic Tutsis. The Vatican missionary service said the attackers apparently suspected local people of supporting pro-government forces.