Aid workers flee as Zairean rebels seize key town

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The Independent Online
Peter Smerdon


Nairobi - Zairean rebels yesterday seized the eastern town of Kindu and foreign aid workers fled a major eastern refugee camp for fear of rebel attack, aid agency and UN sources said. Rebels said they were four miles from Tingi Tingi but were delaying an advance for the sake of refugees.

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, encouraged by France, said he hoped to persuade member-states to reconsider sending a multinational force to eastern Zaire in light of a serious humanitarian situation.

A UN source said the rebels captured Kindu and its airport on Thursday but in Kinshasa a defence ministry official said Kindu, a transport hub and base for operations in the war zone, remained in army hands. The UN source added that all 2,000 Zairean troops in Kindu fled without a fight after looting the town and were heading towards the town of Katako- Kombe, 100 miles away.

Kindu had the northernmost working station on a rail line to South Africa. It also had a large airport used by the military. The aid officials said an immediate evacuation of all expatriates had been ordered from Tingi Tingi, 160 miles north-east of Kindu, after camp leaders were warned that the camp would be attacked by another rebel force last night.

Aid workers said Zairean troop reinforcements and mercenaries arrived from the city of Kisangani in Tingi Tingi, backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships. Tingi Tingi has some 170,000 Rwandan and Burundian refugees who fled earlier rebel advances. Meanwhile, Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader, was reported to have returned from exploratory peace talks in South Africa and headed for his headquarters in Goma. Some 500 Rwandan Hutus, including officers of the former Hutu Rwandan army, have escaped to Kenya from Tingi Tingi in the last two weeks by air at a cost of pounds 500 seat, Hutu sources said.