Rebel suspects die at hands of mob in Congo

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The Independent Online
SCREAMING for mercy, a suspected rebel was beaten with rifle butts, then thrown off a bridge. As he crawled to the edge of the fetid stream, soldiers leaned over the bridge railing and sprayed him with machine-gun fire. Three more alleged rebels or sympathisers were dealt with in similar fashion in front of hundreds of cheering civilians.

Their deaths, and those of dozens of others whose charred bodies, many burnt alive, lie on the streets of Kinshasa, are a testament to the fires of hatred that have been fanned to fight rebellion in Congo. Unable to manage or motivate his army to fight a far smaller but more effective rebel force, President Laurent Kabila has turned to ethnic enmity and foreign armies to prop up his regime and prevent the capital from falling.

Since last Tuesday, rebel troops and government forces have been fighting in the outskirts of Kinshasa. Operating in small bands, thousands of rebel fighters slipped into the city, despite government assertions that rebels were nowhere near the capital. In the narrow streets of the densely populated eastern suburbs, the government's propaganda has raised an army of vigilantes to fight off the rebels.

Take "a machete, a spear, an arrow, a hoe, a spade, rakes, nails, truncheons, barbed wire, stones and the like to kill the Rwandan Tutsis", Congolese were told on state radio. Ethnic Tutsis and people born in the east of Congo, including women and children, were dragged from their homes and held in Kinshasa army camps. "The rebels are like monkeys, some swinging in the trees with no clothes," said Yerodia Abdulay Ndombasi, Mr Kabila's chief of cabinet.

Congo, which is the size of western Europe, has more than 250 ethnic groups and a legacy of tribal and regional rivalries. A white skin is no protection in this cauldron of random hate. Last week, when I was detained with two other journalists at a dingy, doorless police post, crowds surged into the entrance, screaming: "Stone them! Hang them!"

Although the bulk of the rebels are Congolese who defected from Mr Kabila's army or were former soldiers of the late dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, the government has effectively branded them as an ethnic Tutsi force, backed by Rwanda and Uganda. On Friday, it paraded six prisoners of war who said they were Rwandan. "We didn't know who our enemy was. We were just sent to Congo," said Innocent Kaprisi, 18.

Until just over a week ago, this rebellion appeared to be a carbon copy of last year's, when Mr Kabila seized power, also with help from Rwanda and Uganda. His forces crossed this vast country with few substantial battles: no sooner would radio propagandists announce his intention to capture a town than the defenders would get ready to flee, after looting everything they could and firing a few token shots. The same pattern has largely been repeated in this war, with the rebels seizing most of eastern Congo and much of the territory south-west of Kinshasa in three weeks of rapid advances.

Events took a new turn, however, when battle-hardened Angolan troops and tanks entered western Congo last weekend, quickly dislodging the rebels from their rear air base at Kitona, near the Atlantic coast, and several key sites nearby. Ever supportive of embattled African strongmen, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe dispatched troops and combat aircraft. Namibia's Sam Nujoma, who is working to rewrite the Namibian constitution to stay in office, lent arms and troops.

President Nelson Mandela has tried vainly to broker a peace deal, but no one wants to listen. On Friday, the British ambassador to Congo, Doug Scrafton, urged neighbouring nations to stay out of the battle, but it is already too late.

After weeks of denying involvement, Uganda and Rwanda are threatening overt support of the rebels. "We are physically being attacked by Kabila, Zimbabwe and Angola," said Major General Salim Saleh, half-brother to Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, and his adviser on defence and security. "We are not going to leave Congo. We went there to save our national security." Rwanda is also threatening to step in to protect its own people.

The result is a battle among proxy forces which has moved from the forests south-west of Kinshasa to the thickly populated suburbs along the Congo river, about four miles east of the airport. Many of the fighters on both sides have no ties to the city; yesterday, as the sound of heavy gunfire continued to reverberate, diplomats expressed fears that the government would attempt to dislodge the rebels by bombarding whole areas rather than fighting house to house. Thousands of people have flocked to the safer city centre, their possessions bundled on their heads, queuing every hundred yards to be searched at army roadblocks.

Despite the rebels' poor position in Kinshasa, the outcome is not yet clear. Mr Kabila's officers continue to squabble about who is in charge, since the president, either afraid for his safety or unable to rein in competing factions, manages the war by committee rather than one top commander.

In Kinshasa's main market, Claudine Kaka Buingi earns a living selling eggs. Before the war she often sold up to 600 in a day. On Friday she sold 30.

"We like Kabila, but if he doesn't stop the fighting, we'll change our minds. There's no electricity, no water, nothing to eat," she said.