Anarchy sweeps capital after marchers beaten

Parts of Kinshasa descended into anarchy yesterday after soldiers used tear gas and armoured cars to disperse thousands of students demonstrating in support of the beleaguered Prime Minister, Etienne Tshisekedi.

"You see what these people are, the Zairean army," complained student Leblanc Mangala, after one desperate charge. "The people are marching for democracy and they fire gas and bullets. They don't shoot at Kabila [Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader]."

In the poor quarter of Makotge, burning barriers were erected and cars hijacked by mobs that often seemed to have little direct political motive for their actions.

Journalists and foreigners were intimidated or even stoned, and here and there crowds set about victims and began beating them.

Not to be left behind by civilians or their comrades in the South, Kinshasa's garrison did a little light looting of its own. One American radio journalist had her tape recorder and shoes stolen by soldiers during a charge on the marchers. Another lost his watch.

Yesterday's unrest in Kinshasa stems from the hurried reappointment of the veteran opposition leader, Mr Tshisikedi, as prime minister less than one week ago. Hailed as the one credible figure who could unite Kinshasa's bickering elites and lead them into peace talks with Kabila, Mr Tshisekedi at once outraged Mobutu Sese Seko's immediate family and alienated many within his own by announcing that he intended to dissolve the unelected but well-paid parliament and appoint a cabinet containing no Mobutist ministers. He also proposed to reserve six cabinets seats out of 48 for Mr Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo- Zaire, an offer rejected by the rebels.

At the weekend, angry MPs announced that they would sack their new premier on Monday. Many young Kinshasans did not agree, and managed to keep parliament closed yesterday. Taking refuge in the central Memling Hotel, pro-Mobutu parliamentary leader Jean Marie Elesse Bokohoma admitted that MPs had underestimated public hostility. "The street does not agree with the parliament," he said.

Yet Mr Tshisekedi failed to capitalise on his supporters' victory yesterday. A large chanting crowd that gathered outside his home was told first that the leader would address them, then that he was too busy with the meeting. One of his newly appointed "ministers", Christian Badibangi, told the rapidly thinning crowd to prepare instead for a big public demonstration on Wednesday.

For all the tension and violence in Kinshasa yesterday, many foreign observers still doubt that the Zairean people have the will and the unity to topple the dictatorship, which most detest. While some of those marching yesterday were ardent Tshisekedist- "he is a man of peace, Kabila a man of blood", bawled one student clinging to a looted truck - others were just as inclined to hand the crown to Kabila.

Asked what they would do if Marshal Mobutu simply ignored their calls for his resignation, many students were nonplussed: "We are waiting for Kabila", was a common response. But with Mr Kabila's nearest forces hundreds of miles away, Kinshasa seems fated to endure a long, chaotic wait. Across the river in Brazzaville around 2,000 troops from Britain, France, Belgium and the United States are standing by to make sure it is not too violent - for their expatriate nationals at least.