Rebels close on Kinshasa

The siege of Kinshasa drew closer yesterday after rebels announced the capture of three gateway towns to the Zairean capital, choking food and essential supplies. Mwenge Kongolo, the rebel "justice minister, revised the recent forecast by his leader, Laurent Kabila, of the fall of Kinshasa from weeks to "a matter of days".

The rebels seized Ilebo, Tshikapa and Dowete. A pincer offensive appears to be under way after missionaries in Bas-Zaire province reported the arrival of the first rebel force west of Kinshasa. Families of government soldiers in the port of Matabi are being sent back to Kinshasa and diplomats in the capital confirm military activity on the border between Bas-Zaire and Angola.

Analysts had forecast that Angola could provide a strategic springboard for the rebels. President Sese Seko Mobutu is an old enemy of the Angolan President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos. "The rebel plan is becoming clearer now," said an analyst in Kinshasa. "They want to force the capital into submission and the noose is tightening."

Most people in Kinshasa will welcome the speed of the rebel advance but there are concerns that Mr Mobutu, the country's corrupt ruler for the past three decades, may take violent revenge before his almost inevitable flight. If he spares his people, and opposition politicians, his desperate, thuggish soldiers, who have looted and raped civilians during six months of retreat, may not.

The official line is that troops will defend Kinshasa to the last man. But yesterday Mr Kongolo said he did not believe there would be a bloody battle for the capital. In Geneva, Francois Lumumba, son of Patrice Lumumba, the country's first prime minister, and Mr Kabila's hero, appealed to Mr Mobutu not to launch any revenge attacks on the population.

"To the numerous crimes (he has) already committed it is useless to add, on the eve of the new regime, a crime against humanity," said Mr Lumumba, an opposition figure in Kinshasa who was on his way to eastern Zaire for talks with Mr Kabila. Mr Mobutu was implicated in the death of Patrice Lumumba.

The people of Kinshasa may have to rely on Mr Mobutu's restraint, because South African-led peace talks are going nowhere. Although South African ministers said yesterday that the UN special envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun, was poised to return to Cape Town to settle a date and venue for direct talks and that both sides had reaffirmed their commitment to a negotiated peace, analysts believe Mr Kabila will not stop until Mr Mobutu and his regime are ousted.

The US has warned that Mr Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire could be damaging relations with the West by failing to repatriate Rwandan Hutu refugees in east Zaire. Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, had claimed the rebels were starving refugees by denying aid agencies access to them. The refugees fled to Zaire two years ago after the Hutu genocide of 800,000 Tutsis.

The rebels deny being obstructive. Yesterday they allowed the UN to visit camps where rebel massacres of refugees and deaths from starvation had been reported. Last night a UN spokesman said a team had found two camps, which until this week housed 55,000 refugees, deserted, at Kasese, south of Kisangani. The rebels, he said, would not allow the team to travel further.