Rebels aim for Zaire's second city as coup fears sweep capital

Zairean rebels in Goma, their provisional capital, announced yesterday that their next objective would be Lubumbashi, capital of the copper rich Shaba province. But with the capital Kinshasa awash with rumours of imminent coups, the rest of Zaire could fall into their hands before they even move to take it.

Two days after rebels captured Kisangani, Zaire's third largest city, the country's ageing President Mobutu Sese Seko is reported to be critically ill in a French hospital. Meanwhile the power is draining from his regime in Kinshasa, as defiant rebels swarm westward from the Rwandan border.

Kinshasa may be the brains of Mobutu's Zaire, but by capturing Kisangani, Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the liberation of Congo/Zaire seemed to have ripped out its heart. With Kisangani in their hands, the rebels are now poised to continue their advance into strategic mineral regions and perhaps Kinshasa itself.

Although Kisangani was an important objective in itself, for the rebels it also represented an opportunity to rout the best forces Mr Mobutu could send to meet them. These included several thousand members of the exiled Rwanda Hutu army and militias and - the rebels claim - fighters from the Angolan Unita rebel movement.

The city was the base for the government's troops and foreign - mainly Serb and Croat - mercenaries whom President Mobutu ordered to crush Mr Kabila's eastern rebels. Its airport was, until Saturday morning, the last airfield in eastern Zaire still in government hands.

The capture of Kisangani is a crippling blow to any plans the government might have had for launching another offensive. Worse, its geographical position astride the Congo River system offers fresh opportunities to move against diamond-rich Kasai province in the south or Kinshasa in the west.

Zaire and its allies claim that the rebels' success is due to direct support from the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, ethnically linked to many of the rebels and politically at odds with Mr Mobutu's regime. Zaire's neighbours deny this and accuse it of seeking excuses for the indiscipline and corruption of its own bedraggled army.

Most towns on the road to Kisangani have been captured after a light bombardment and with little fight - the rebels seem content to allow the demoralised Zairean and Rwandan Hutu troops to loot and flee.

According to one military observer the rebel army's most difficult challenge was probably logistical - maintaining supply lines along the broken roads and tangled rainforests that separate their base at Goma from Kisangani, over 300 miles to the west. In doing so, the rebels have shown that they are capable of striking anywhere.

n Kisangani (Reuter) - Around 300 government troops handed their weapons over to victorious rebels in Kisangani as the central government told its citizens not to panic over the military defeat. Residents in Kisangani say that the city, headquarters for army operations in the war zone, fell to rebels after Zairean soldiers looted what they could and fled.