Rebel forces push deep into Zaire

Rebels in eastern Zaire are continuing to push westwards, driving the demoralised Zairean army (FAZ) before them. Missionaries evacuated from the area have reported looting and raping by Zairean troops fleeing north after the capture of a number of towns in the interior. The rebels, who are backed by neighbouring Rwanda, are committed to toppling the regime of the Zairean president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

A senior Zairean rebel commander said yesterday that rebels had entered Kisangani, the largest city in eastern Zaire, and were in control of parts of it. Commander John Kabunga, senior aide to the rebel leader Laurent Kabila, said in the town of Goma that rebel forces had reached Kisangani from the east by bypassing the intervening town of Walikale, where they had encountered difficulties.

What started in October as a localised self-defence campaign by a group of ethnic Tutsis has become a full-scale insurgency. The conflict, which has caused massive movements of panic-stricken people, is increasingly threatening to ignite the whole of central Africa. Having accused Rwanda's Tutsi-led government of arming and fighting alongside the rebels, Zaire has turned on Uganda, seen by many as the most stable country in the region.

Uganda admits shelling the Zairean town of Kasindi which it says was occupied by rebels opposed to the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni. But it denies having crossed the border and occupied part of Zaire.

Zaire says it will counter- attack, though how it proposes to tackle the well-trained Ugandan army, having failed to suppress an uprising in its own back yard, is unclear. The Zairean government has repeatedly voiced its opposition to plans for the deployment of a foreign intervention force in its eastern region, having lost control over it more than a month ago.

More than 20 countries, among them Britain, the United States and Germany, are due to contribute to the multi- national force which is being led by Canada. The scale of the intervention has been trimmed back radically in the face of widespread regional opposition and growing evidence that not so many refugees are at risk as was originally thought.

The United Nations and aid agencies have said that as many as 700,000 Rwandan refugees and Zairean civilians need to be rescued from eastern Zaire, having been uprooted by fighting. But Rwanda - on whose territory the international community originally wanted to base the intervention mission - says few of its nationals remain in Zaire. Their claim is supported by United States satellite pictures which show only small concentrations of refugees still in eastern Zaire.

More than half a million Rwandan Hutus returned to Rwanda last month from eastern Zaire where they had lived in refugees camps for more than two years.

The intervention force has so far been unable to get convoys of food and medical aid to the refugees. Taking their cue from their Rwandan backers, the Zairean rebels say they will only allow a handful of multinational military personnel into the territory they control. The rebels fear that the presence of such a force could neutralise the amazing gains they continue to make against the FAZ and allied Rwandan Hutu militias.

The Canadian-led force has been considering airdrops of food to the refugees in eastern Zaire. So far, however, it has only been able to deliver a small consignment of aid to Tanzania. Refugee camps there have recently swelled with an influx of Zaireans and Burundian Hutus fleeing eastern Zaire.

Fighting in Burundi has flared up again in recent days, with Hutu rebels reporting attacks on Tutsi-led army positions in five regions.

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