Aid workers have been surprised by the success of the Tutsi rebels, who come from a group known as the Banyamulenge. Carrying automatic weapons and moving swiftly through the hills, the guerrillas have proved more than a match for Zaire's chaotic and ill-disciplined army (FAZ).
The threatened town is already full of tens of thousands of refugees from other camps. Most are Hutus from neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi who came to eastern Zaire to escape the ethnic conflicts in their own countries. The Zairean authorities say a number of camps whose residents are almost exclusively Hutus have been attacked by the rebels but there has been no independent confirmation.
In their panicky desire to flee, the refugees have cut themselves off from their food sources in the camps, as a result of which aid agencies are warning that there could be a humanitarian disaster.
"This crisis has all the ingredients for a humanitarian emergency," a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees said yesterday.
The UN World Food Programme said it had supplies only for three or four days in its warehouses in Bukavu. That is enough for refugees already in the town but not enough for new arrivals. So far, more than 60,000 of those who fled their camps last weekend are said to have reached Bukavu.
The fighting, which began a few weeks ago, has its roots in animosity between the region's indigenous Zaireans and the Banyamulenge, ethnic Tutsis whose origins in the Mulenge mountains of South Kivu go back 200 years. The settlers, who number about one-third of a million, are widely resented because of their superior wealth in cattle and land.
Since they were denied Zairean citizenship in 1981, the Banyamulenge have become a marginalised force. With elections planned for next year, some of Zaire's politicians have decided to play the ethnic card by whipping up local jealousies. Earlier this month, the Banyamulenge were ordered by the deputy governor of South Kivu to leave Zaire "or be hunted down as rebels". The fighters claim they are protecting their people from genocide.
Diplomatic sources believe the rebels' aim is to empty the camps of Rwandan Hutu refugees and so gain control of enough Zairean territory to force the hand of the Zairean authorities.
But the conflict threatens to ignite the tinderbox of ethnic hatreds in the region. Already there have been clashes between the FAZ and the largely Tutsi Rwandan army which Zaire accuses of arming and assisting its fellow Tutsis among the Banyamulenge. Burundi, which like Rwanda is controlled by a Tutsi-led regime, has also been accused by Zaire of backing the Banyamulenge.Reuse content