Zaireans attack Uganda border crossing

Fighting threatens to spread as Tutsis launch offensive and a border clash add to tensions in central Africa

Tension in central Africa increased still further yesterday as Uganda accused Zaire of invading its territory.

More than 100 men attacked a Ugandan border post and five people - two civilians and three attackers - were killed in the incident at Npondwe, about 30 miles from the town of Kasese. Hundreds of villagers fled in panic.

Witnesses said some of the men had Zairean army uniforms but others wore torn, dirty civilian clothes.

It is one of the most serious border incidents between the two countries in recent weeks. Zaire has accused Uganda, as well as Rwanda and Burundi, of backing the rebels who in the past three weeks have swept through its eastern territory and taken control of north and south Kivu.

Zaire's claims that its neighbours have designs on its territory have heightened fears that the crisis in eastern Zaire might spiral into a wider conflict.

The area in which the attack took place has recently been flooded with Zairean refugees fleeing fighting further south on the Zaire-Rwanda border, around Goma. To escape the war between rebels and Zairean troops and the worst excesses of retreating Zairean soldiers, the refugees have been crossing into Uganda, travelling around Lake Edward and crossing back to Zaire via the Kazinga Channel further north in Kasese province.

There is speculation that the attackers are the desperate remnants of Zairean army units which have also fled the fighting further south, or Zairean bandits taking advantage of the chaos. Shops were looted during the raid.

"We don't care if this was sanctioned by the Zairean government or not," a Ugandan government spokesman said yesterday. "The fact is that this is a breach of our sovereign territory and the taking of our people's lives by foreign aggressors. We have sent in reinforcements. And we are taking the attack very seriously." Representations had not been made to the Zairean government because complaints about other border incidents had gone unheeded, he said.

Martin Aliker, Uganda's Foreign Minister, said the attackers appeared to consist of Zairean troops and Ugandan dissidents, trained in Zaire. He said the attack reflected the general lawlessness caused by the crisis in eastern Zaire. He denied that Uganda had supported the Zairean rebels.

The Ugandan government has repeatedly warned that it will defend its border vigorously against any outside aggression. The decision by the international community to intervene in the crisis in eastern Zaire is partly motivated by a desire to ensure that it does not spread.

The cross-border attack came on the day that Maj Gen Edward Smith of the US Army, who has been commander of the Southern European Task Force, flew into the Ugandan capital Kampala with a 40-strong team to assess arrangements for the international operation to rescue 1 million Rwandan Hutu refugees trapped by the fighting in eastern Zaire. The operation is expected to start next week. The US assessment team yesterday moved on to the Rwandan capital Kigali.

Kampala seems set to become the nerve-centre of the operation and aid agencies were yesterday preparing for a massive airlift. However, the military forces must first secure Goma airport, which is held by the rebels. Entebbe, Kampala's airport, was at the centre of the 1994 relief operation aimed at the same refugees facing the same problems.

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