Zaire poised to fall as rebels push onwards

Click to follow
With the fall at the weekend of Zaire's third-largest city, Kisangani, the victory of Laurent Kabila's rebel forces over the whole of Zaire begins to seem imminent.

As the rebels push towards the country's second city, Lubumbashi, in mineral-rich Shaba province, neighbouringcountries are beginning to contemplate the impact of an impending rebel victory for the region and the continent.

As the second largest country in Africa, flush with cobalt, copper and diamonds, Zaire arguably holds the key to stability and prosperity in central Africa. But while Zaire's absent president, Mobutu Sese Seko, has consistently accused the rebels of receiving support from Uganda, Tanzania and Sudan, there have been few formal indications of what constitute the policies or intentions of the rebel forces.

In six months, the alliance has captured one-fifth of Zaire's vast territory, creeping out from its stronghold on the country's eastern border and making its way slowly westwards. Even if it takes months for the rebels to reach the capital, Kinshasa, the seizure of Shaba province could sever the lifeline of the Mobutu administration. Shaba is vital to government control of the national economy, and the foreign mercenaries apparently holding together what is left of the ragtag government armyneed to be paid.

Still reeling from the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and fearful of a repetition, central Africa has been awash with refugees fleeing further persecution.

The rebel advance in Zaire has uprooted hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus who fled to Zaire fearing reprisals after the genocide by Hutu radicals of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Up to 700,000 opted to return to Rwanda in December when their camps near the border in the east came under rebel attack. Armed Hutu radicals and several hundred thousand Hutu refugees fled west and are trapped in the war zone.

While the Zaire government has accepted a United Nations ceasefire plan, Mr Kabila grows more confident of outright victory by the day. He said at the weekend that there could be no ceasefire before negotiations, adding that these should be with Mr Mobutu himself. The lakeside town of Pweto, 200 miles north-east of Lubumbashi, has fallen to the rebel advance. Celebrations, meanwhile, were held across rebel-held Zaire at the weekend following the news of the fall of Kisangani. Mr Mobutu has stayed in France for most of the time since being operated on for prostate cancer in Switzerland last year, and aides had little to say about the fall of the city. "Don't you know that it's Sunday?" said one who answered the telephone at Mr Mobutu's luxurious villa at Roquebrune-Cap Martin on the French Riviera. "We don't work on Sundays."