Hutus back Zaire as rebels besiege airport

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The Independent Online
The strategic airport at Goma was yesterday on the point of falling to Tutsi rebels as the conflict in eastern Zaire showed further signs of spreading across central Africa.

As night fell, the town faced imminent capture and aid agencies were preparing to evacuate their staff. The airport is a vital supply link both for aid agencies and the Zairean army.

The worst of the conflict had been confined to Zaire's South Kivu province, where the Tutsi rebels, known as Banyamulenge, launched their insurgency. They have taken Bukavu, the provincial capital, and large-scale fighting has erupted in neighbouring North Kivu.

"We are in Goma now and our forces are fighting for control of Goma airport," a Banyamulenge spokesman said. "We took Bukavu last [Wednesday] night."

The explosion of mortar bombs and the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard from early morning yesterday in the outskirts of Goma, a lakeside town which is the provincial capital of North Kivu. "Our staff can hear a lot of mortar and small-arms fire from their offices in the town," said Alison Campbell, of the Care aid agency, who is in the Rwandan town of Gisenyi, just across the border. "But they are effectively pinned down in the town and are unsure who holds the airport."

As well-equipped Banyamulenge rebels and the Zairean army (FAZ) shelled each other's positions on the edge of Goma, it was reported that Rwandan refugees were joining eastern Zaire's conflict on the side of the FAZ. Such a development risks plunging the region into ethnic bloodshed similar to that seen in Rwanda in 1994, when at least half-a- million people, mostly minority Tutsis, were massacred by the country's majority Hutus.

Yesterday bloated corpses, some with their hands bound, were to be seen floating down the Rusizi River, which divides Zaire and Burundi. It was unclear if the dead were Zaireans or Burundians, Hutus or Tutsis, but they have been floating into Lake Tanganyika for the past two weeks.

Already Rwanda has become embroiled in the conflict, its troops trading artillery fire with the FAZ across the border in South Kivu. Zaire has accused the Tutsi-dominated regimes of both Rwanda and Burundi of backing the Banyamulenge Tutsis, which both deny.

Zaire's huge Rwandan refugee population contains many of those who participated in the 1994 genocide. Facing capture by advancing Tutsi rebels, extremist Hutu militias and the remnants of Rwanda's routed army fled over the border into Zaire. During the past year Hutu insurgents from the refugee camps have been launching increasingly frequent incursions into Rwanda. Now it seems the Rwandan rebels, fearful of retribution if they return to their homeland, are once again fighting Tutsis, this time alongside the FAZ.

"Our staff have had reliable eyewitness reports that former Rwandan army troops and Hutu militias are being carried to the front in buses from Mugunga refugee camp, where they have been based," Ms Campbell said.

Yesterday huge columns of panic-stricken refugees were said to be fleeing towards Mugunga, which, with 400,000 inhabitants, is the largest refuge settlement in the world.