Rebels fall on streets of Kinshasa

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PUBLIC EXECUTIONS and ethnic reprisals swept Kinshasa yesterday amid an atmosphere of anger and xenophobia.

At dusk artillery blasts rumbled across the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and heavy machine-gun fire erupted from dozens of locations in the city.

Fifteen months ago rebel soldiers quietly infiltrated Kinshasa's sprawling suburbs, provoking not a sound from a population eager to see the last of Mobutu Sese Seko.

This week many of the same fighters crept back to attack Kinshasa but angry mobs doused suspected rebels in petrol and burnt them alive.

The charred bodies of rebel soldiers, sometimes in pieces, littered the eastern suburbs yesterday. Government troops manned roadblocks every few hundred metres.

Journalists saw one suspected rebel beaten by two soldiers, thrown off a bridge screaming, then machine-gunned as he tried to struggle from the river. A Congolese journalist counted 40 charred bodies.

President Laurent Kabila has unleashed a relentless effort to fight rapid rebel advances and counteract massive army defections. He is vilifying ethnic Tutsis [believed by Mr Kabila to be the driving force behind the war], foreign journalists, French citizens, Americans and anyone born in eastern Congo.

The battle for Kinshasa seems at stalemate. Government troops backed by Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian soldiers, aircraft and armour appear firmly in control of the city's strategic Ndjili airport and nearly the entire city.

But government sources said rebel troops hold significant swaths of densely populated residential land, marsh and forest seven kilometres from the airport. The government plans to urge the population to flee, then flatten the area with artillery and bombs.

For the rebels to break out, they need reinforcements and heavy weapons. At least one helicopter, likely a government or allied craft, was shot down over the disputed area yesterday.

Despite the failures of Mr Kabila's rule widely discussed a few months ago, much of the population is solidly behind him, thanks largely to inflamatory rhetoric.

State radio has urged citizens to take up nails, machetes, spears, bows and arrows and other weapons to kill Tutsis. Yesterday the government dispatched 50 instructors to train the people how to kill in Bakongo, the rebel-held province south-west of Kinshasa.

The question in the long term is not who will rule but how they can possibly rule over a massive nation riddled with ethnic and regional distrust.

Complicating matters is the degree of support rebels have received in certain areas of Kinshasa. Despite government insistence that Rwanda and Uganda have invaded, Gaetan Kakudji, minister of the interior, acknowledged that most of the dead or captured rebel fighters in Kinshasa are non-Tutsi Congolese in Congolese uniforms.

To help identify allies, all government troops have been ordered to wear their uniforms inside out.