Ominous rumblings in Zaire Kalemie falls: Rebel gains have Mobutu talking up foreign intervention.

February 08, 1997

FOREBODINGS of a wider war arise from the Zaire rebels' success in the south and from Zaire's response. Yet what distinguishes this episode from attempts to dismember Zaire in times of Cold War and high copper prices is the reluctance now of outside powers to intervene.

The new alarm comes from the rebel advance into the town of Kalemie on the eastern edge of Zaire and the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. It is inside the border of Shaba province, which was the copper-rich secessionist province of Katanga in the 1960s.

This is enough to conjure up images of the chaos into which the huge Belgian Congo descended upon transformation into independent Zaire, amid myriad interventions and intrigues. The fear then was that if European-imposed borders fell anywhere, all Africa was doomed to chaos. Sanctity of borders remains a firm principle of the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

But Kalemie is also the home town of the Zairian rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, and a logical extension of the eastern strip of Zaire that he has been conquering. It is 500 miles from Lubumbashi, the capital of Shaba. Mr. Kabila may enjoy the support of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, as the land he has taken was used by rebels against those regimes. He says he intends to save Zaire, not dismember it.

The barely functional regime of the aging, ill and absentee ruler of Zaire, Gen. Mobutu Sese Seko, talks up the wider war. He has not in 32 years allowed his country to build infrastructure and an army capable of defending the nation lest they topple him. He flew Monday to Morocco to beg for aid while his foreign minister did the same in Paris.

Mr. Mobutu's functionaries have called on young boys to join the army; announced that mercenaries are on the march; predicted troops from Morocco, Togo and Chad with help from France and Egypt and training by Israel and China. All just talk.

The real danger to Zaire is that a successful detachment of the eastern strip may display the weakness to other rebels and dismemberers elsewhere in Africa. President Mobutu has been trading on that since 1965.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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