Looters move in as refugees flee rebel force

Conflict in Zaire: Urgent calls for intervention
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The Independent Online
In the shadow of the giant volcanoes that dominate eastern Zaire's border with Rwanda, the rebel soldier's uniform seemed particularly shabby. But his eyes shone with conviction.

"President Mobutu has done nothing for our country," he said. "Zaire is rich and yet our people are so poor he did nothing to develop it. We have come to liberate our entire country and all the people in it."

In the main street, just a few hundred yards away, the liberated were doing a little final looting in shops and international aid organisation offices. Buildings were first ransacked at the weekend when the Zairean troops were run out of town. Goma was the third main town in eastern Zaire to fall to the newly formed Alliance of Democratic Forces for the liberation of Congo Zaire.

For two days, Goma's new military leaders had been cleaning up, before allowing journalists to cross the piece of string, slung between a peeling wrought iron chair and a bamboo stick, which marks the beginning of the border crossing on the banks of Lake Kivu.

But the blood-stained floors yesterday were evidence of war - with estimates of hundreds dead. In Goma's main street, looters trampled over discarded Zairean banknotes, worthless in this collapsing country where inflation is 7,000 per cent.

Small wonder that everyone seemed to be stealing something. Children struggled home with boxes of biscuits stamped United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and in the main street people crowded round UN lorries for food and fresh water, once destined for the millions of Rwandan Hutu refugees whose arrival in Zaire in 1994 triggered the crisis now engulfing the region and threatening the security of central Africa.

Of the Rwandan refugees there was no sign, but more than700,000 of them are believed to be trapped between battle lines.

The humanitarian disaster facing them is the latest stage of the nightmare which began in 1994 with the genocide of Rwanda's minority Tutsi population by the majority Hutus. Two million Hutus fled the country when the Tutsi army won the civil war. In three evil months, they wiped out 800,000 Tutsis, and they feared reprisals.

Many refugees who tugged the international heart-strings were themselves perpetrators of one of the worst atrocities in recent history; the extremists who masterminded genocide have continued to create havoc. They turned the refugee camps into militia bases from which to hit at the new Rwandan government, and in Zaire they escalated persecution of Tutsis who had lived there for generations.

Yesterday, Robert Gribbin, US Ambassador to Rwanda, said the refugees had been a key element to regional destabilisation, and the need for their repatriation is now the orthodoxy.

Yesterday Andre Kassasse Ngandu, Goma's new military leader, said the refugees must leave so the rebels could abandon the ceasefire they called on Monday and resume their fight with the Zairean government.

The Zairean government bred discontent by denying Zairean Hutus and Tutsis citizenship in 1981, but it was the Hutu camp militias that encouraged local politicians to order local Tutsis to leave the country or be killed. The seeds of revolt were sown. Despite Rwandan government denials, most observers believe that, faced with Hutu threats on its own border, it has helped and even orchestrated the uprising.

But Zaire's insurrection is unlikely to subside if the refugees go home. The rebels insist they will take Kinshasa though they may have to build a road to get there for the country is ruined after 30 years of Mobutu rule; roads have been reclaimed by the jungle and communications are almost non-existent.

Eastern Zaire's rebels have support from other regions. "I come from Shaba province," revealed the soldier with the shabby uniform. "Many of us come from Shaba and also from Kasai." Both provinces are already virtually independent of Kinshasa.

Mr Ngandu says President Mobutu's return from Europe, where he has been receiving treatment for cancer, will change nothing. "He is terminally ill and finished as a political force. This is not just a regional war."

Nairobi, (Reuter) - African leaders called for the urgent deployment of a neutral force in eastern Zaire to protect more than a million refugees dependent on a UN Security Council decision.

The one-day summit, which was not attended by any Zairean representative, called on the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Salim Ahmed Salim to co-ordinate on the proposed move.