Civilians emerge after army's rape of Kindu

Kindu, Zaire - Hundreds of people emerged from forest hideouts around the looted eastern Zairean town of Kindu yesterday, days after soldiers retreated and rebels captured it.

Kindu, most of which is on the western bank of the broad, rust-red Zaire river, was looted by retreating soldiers last week and next by civilians who stole anything that they had left, residents told journalists who were flown in by the rebels aboard a DC-3 aircraft.

Hundreds of people with belongings piled on their heads came out of forest hideouts and trekked past the airport and into town, saying they fled looting as well as fighting.

There was no visible sign of battle at the airport and much of the town was scarred more by looting than by bullets.

"Everyone joined in. All I took was a carton of mineral water," Joseph Baroani said in Kindu, which residents said was captured by rebels who crossed the river in boats on Saturday night.

They said that after Zairean troops left, along with five white mercenaries, including two who spoke French, Kindu was defended by a 177-strong contingent of former Rwandan Hutu soldiers.

One of the mercenaries had been shot in the leg, they said.

Pascal Mwimba, head of the Zaire Red Cross in Kindu, said 11 former Rwandan troops were killed in fighting for the town and three children were killed when a mortar bomb hit their home.

Mr Mwimba said the town was short of food and drugs.

"Everything was looted. In the hospital we don't have any drugs or equipment, not even aspirin," he told reporters.

About a quarter of the stalls in the main market were open and cheering women showered visiting journalists with rice, saying they were pleased that the fighting was over.

"As you can see, there is no doubt that Kindu has been liberated," Jacques Lukumani, the new rebel information commissioner in Kindu, told reporters at the town's airport.

"Two-thirds of the people who fled are still in the forest, and only now are they coming out. Most of my family is still there," said student Muinyi Soumaili as she walked back home.

Rebel officers said they captured most of Kindu on Sunday and Zairean troops scattered into the forest and headed west.

Kindu is 200 miles west of the border with Rwanda and 250 miles south of Kisangani, the capital of north-eastern Zaire and centre for army operations in the region.

"What the Zairean soldiers did was terrible. We are very happy to have been liberated," Masengo Masongo, a resident of Kindu, said.

The rebels said on Friday that they had seized part of the town but the claim was denied by the defence ministry in Kinshasa.