Zaire drifts towards ethnic war

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Full-scale war was last night threatening to engulf the volatile Great Lakes region of central Africa as fighting continued in eastern Zaire and 250,000 people fled for safety.

Unable or unwilling to contain fighting between its army and rebel groups, the Zairean government has turned on its neighbours, Rwanda and Burundi, accusing them of provoking the conflict. With the crisis deepening by the hour, aid officials are warning there could be a humanitarian disaster similar to the 1994 Rwanda genocide and exodus.

Anarchic at the best of times, Zaire is all but rudderless at the moment, its ailing president, Mobutu Sese Seko, still convalescing in Switzerland after surgery for prostate cancer. His country's remote Kivu region could now be consumed by the same ethnic hatreds which two years ago tore Rwanda apart and which bedevil Burundi with growing ferocity.

Zaire's mountainous eastern area has been simmering with unrest since more than 1 million Rwandans, members of the Hutu majority, fled there after the 1994 genocide.

Fighting has spread in recent weeks since Zairean troops became embroiled in ethnic clashes between local Zaireans and settlers of Rwandan Tutsi origin.

The United Nations fears Rwanda and Burundi, whose armies are both dominated by Tutsis, could be drawn in on the side of Zaire's ethnic Tutsis.

President Mobutu has sent a message to his divided government that its top priority should be the protection of national unity. Zaire's state radio issued pleas to the populace to contribute money to help the country's impoverished army. "The war in the east concerns all Zaireans," it said.

In recent days, the Zairean army has brought reinforcements of troops and artillery to Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu.

However, if it came to all-out conflict between Zaire and Rwanda, few observers believe Zaire could withstand an all-out attack by the well- disciplined and motivated Rwandan army. Zaire's armed forces are ragged, unpaid and poorly trained.

A Zairean government spokesman said yesterday that "elements of the Rwandan army" attacked parts of North Kivu, but were repulsed by Zairean forces.

Rwanda's Tutsi-led regime has denied entering Zaire. Yet its leaders are known to be increasingly incensed at the Zairean army's attacks on ethnic Tutsis, whose presence in eastern Zaire goes back 200 years.

The Rwandan government is also frustrated by the continuing presence of its nationals in the region's refugee camps. Rwandan Hutu extremists, committed to returning home by force, have been launching frequent raids into Rwanda from their bases in the camps.

According to some sources, Zaire has been arming and training the Rwandan Hutu rebels and arms supplies are believed to have been allowed to land at Goma airport by the Zairean authorities.

While there is no evidence of Burundian troops attacking Zaire, there have been reports of Tutsi militias launching cross-border raids from Burundi.

Burundi's Tutsi-dominated government, which has been isolated by international sanctions since a military coup in July, has resolutely refused to negotiate with Hutu rebels seeking to overthrow it. The Burundian rebels, like their Rwandan counterparts, are operating from eastern Zaire.

With the Great Lakes region increasingly polarised along Hutu-Tutsi lines, the three countries' individual conflicts risk exploding in an ethnic fireball. In such a conflagration, borders and diplomacy would seem meaningless.

The large movement of refugees and civilians of recent days could be the precursor of a humanitarian emergency on a massive scale.

With all journalists ordered out of eastern Zaire and aid workers unable to travel safely, the true extent of the suffering there has yet to emerge.

"We are definitely facing a looming catastrophe if food supplies cannot arrive in Bukavu," a UN World Food Programme spokesman said. "We need food there immediately."