Rwanda and Zaire on brink of all-out war

Bukavu faces catastrophe as Tutsi rebels close in, writes David Orr
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Nairobi -The crisis in the Great Lakes region of central Africa escalated dramatically yesterday as Rwandan and Zairean troops exchanged gunfire and mortar rounds over their border. Having repeatedly denied involvement in the conflict between rebels and the Zairean army (FAZ) in eastern Zaire, Rwanda has admitted its forces retaliated when the Rwandan town of Cyangugu was shelled from across the Ruzizi River, which separates the two countries.

The Zairean forces are understood to have attacked Rwandan refugees who had crossed back into their homeland to escape eastern Zaire's war between the FAZ and the rebels belonging to the region's ethnic Tutsi community, the Banyamulenge. Explosions sounded late into the night as the fighting continued between Rwandan and Zairean troops.

The town of Bukavu, only hundreds of yards across the border from Cyangugu, was last night poised to fall to the Banyamulenge rebels whose insurgency has cut a swath of panic and destruction though the eastern region of Zaire. Mortars landed in the outskirts of the provincial capital of South Kivu while the rebels exchanged gunfire with the FAZ.

There are fears of further carnage if the well-armed Banyamulenge fighters manage to take Bukavu. Burundian refugees fleeing fighting further to the south say that in the rebel-held town of Uvira, 60 miles away, hundreds of people have been killed. The rebels took Uvira, at the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, last week.

"At Uvira the situation is bad," said one Burundian refugee who had returned to his homeland. "There is nobody there except the Banyamulenge military and the bodies of people killed in the fighting. I saw hundreds of corpses in the streets."

Half a million refugees, most of them Rwandans, have been uprooted from their camps in eastern Zaire by the fighting. A number of the camps, havens for Hutus who have fled unrest in both Rwanda and Burundi, are reported to have been attacked by the Tutsi rebels. Zaire claims the camps have also been shelled by Rwandan forces whom they accuse of arming the Banyamulenge insurgency.

The Banyamulenge say they are fighting to establish their rights to Zairean citizenship withdrawn in 1981. The Zairean authorities last month announced their intention to expel the third of a million Banyamulenge, prompting the armed backlash.

What began as a local dispute has spiralled into all-out war. The conflict threatens the whole of central Africa. There are fears that the Tutsi- dominated armies of both Rwanda and Burundi will be sucked into the fighting on the side of the Banyamulenge.

With Zaire's President Sese Seko Mobutu still in Switzerland, where he is being treated for prostate cancer, Zaire is more unstable than ever. A government spokesman said President Mobutu had placed North and South Kivu provinces under emergency rule. The border with Rwanda remains closed and thousands of Zairean troop reinforcements have been drafted into the area.

"The situation in eastern Zaire is now desperate," said a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "UNHCR is cut off from all but 400,000 of the one million refugees in eastern Zaire."

Burundi has deployed hundreds of extra troops along its western front to prevent the Hutu rebels from entering the country.

The Zairean government has called for international intervention to put an end to the crisis. The UN has continued diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting but has not dispatched a mission to the region. The European Union has dispatched an envoy to Rwanda. The United States has said it will not intervene in eastern Zaire, while France has said it will not become involved.

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