Zairean rebel leader warns of refugee crisis

Goma, Zaire - Laurent Kabila, the Zairean rebel leader, said yesterday that his forces had captured the strategic town of Lubutu and he appealed to the United Nations to help some 170,000 refugees trapped in the fighting.

Mr Kabila said his forces overran the makeshift Tingi Tingi refugee camp on Saturday, dislodging Rwandan and Burundian refugees who had fled fighting further east. There has been no independent confirmation of the claim.

"Many hundreds of refugees are coming and our men have been ordered not to harm them ... the United Nations is invited to go to Tingi Tingi to help the refugees to return home and help repatriate them," Mr Kabila told a news conference in the eastern city of Goma. He suggested that aid agencies would be able to fly into Tingi Tingi immediately to encourage the refugees to return.

Aid workers who were evacuated on Saturday from Kisangani, Zaire's third- largest city, reported seeing tens of thousands of refugees at Tingi Tingi, 125 miles south east, preparing to flee the rebel advance on Friday. Doctors said up to 40 refugees a day were dying of hunger and disease.

The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL) controls most of eastern Zaire after launching a war in October to topple Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire since 1965.

Mr Kabila said his troops captured Tingi Tingi and the strategically- important town of Lubutu nearby, together with its airstrip, after heavy fighting on Saturday afternoon in which one rebel and 25 Zairean soldiers were killed.

Lubutu, 125 miles south east of Kisangani, is the last town on the road from Bukavu and boasts an airstrip. The rebel advance towards Kisangani threatens the integrity of the vast and mineral-rich country.

Mr Kabila said any ceasefire was ruled out before negotiations, adding that he refused to sign an agreement to end the fighting on a visit to South Africa last week - despite foreign diplomatic pressure to do so.

"The Alliance waits for an invitation saying that Mobutu has written to the organisers to say that he personally will negotiate. Only then will we negotiate," Mr Kabila said.