Zaire's neighbors taking active roles in conflict Revenge, special interests draw outsiders to rebellion


KINSHASA, Zaire -- With a rebel force that invaded Zaire advancing through the countryside, new protagonists who want to secure vital interests here or settle old scores are being drawn into the conflict.

With the fall of the longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, appearing ever more likely, governments of neighboring countries and insurgent groups from throughout Central Africa are scrambling to get involved on one side or the other of the conflict, diplomats, Zairian officials and regional military experts say.

A growing coalition of forces is contributing to the fight against Mobutu, in what can be seen as a form of revenge for the decades during which Zaire, a major Cold War ally of the West, was used as a staging point for covert actions against neighbors.

The most dramatic case of new activity from outside involves Zaire's southern neighbor, Angola. Throughout two decades of civil war in that country and now under an uneasy peace there, Zaire has played a critical role in support of the UNITA rebel movement of Jonas Savimbi, once with the heavy covert assistance of the United States.

In recent weeks, these experts and officials say, Angola has been flying Zairian rebels with military supplies into eastern Zaire to join the insurgency of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo.

Angola's formerly Marxist government is apparently eager to cut Savimbi off from gun-running and diamond-trading networks in Zaire.

Most of the exiles are sons of the so-called Katanga Gendarmes, who repeatedly fought secessionist wars for control of Zaire's copper-rich Shaba province beginning shortly after independence from Belgium in 1960.

Zairian officials and diplomats say there is increasingly strong evidence of flights from Angola into the rebel-held cities of Kalemie, Uvira and Bukavu in Zaire. They say that in recent battles, Zairian government forces were routed in the cities of Bunia and Bafwasende by Portuguese-speaking African troops, apparently from Angola.

Angola has denied any involvement in the Zairian war. But in a diplomatic note sent to Mobutu's government last month, Angola, which now enjoys good ties with the United States, reportedly warned that it would attack Zaire if it did not end its support for Savimbi.

Last week, the United States publicly called upon Angola to stay out of the Zairian war.

For its part, the Zairian government, unable to rely upon its own woeful army or a few hundred Serbian mercenaries to stop the rebels' advance on the important eastern city of Kisangani, has reportedly obtained battle-hardened troops on loan from Savimbi's UNITA movement.

Asked to comment, an associate of Mobutu's said: "We have looked to friends in Africa to help us. Even if we end up losing Kisangani, we must make the rebels pay a high enough price so that they will sit down and talk seriously."

The Zairian rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, agreed yesterday to enter negotiations to halt his offensive on the government, a mediator said. But it appeared unlikely that any such talks would come soon enough to stop an assault on Kisangani, the country's second-largest city.

Diplomats here say they have been unable to explain how Kabila has been able to clothe, arm and supply his fast-growing movement, keeping its units supplied with radios, for example, down to the squad level.

Much, but not all, of Kabila's support has come from Rwanda and Uganda. Although the evidence is less certain, military analysts say they suspect that other governments in the region, along with sympathetic rebel movements such as the southern Sudan guerrillas led by John Garang, may be aiding Kabila or cutting deals with him.

International relief officials say there is clear evidence that Zaire tolerated the arming of Hutu militia members who once attacked Rwanda and Burundi from refugee camps near the borders with those countries. Similarly, diplomats say that in addition to supporting Savimbi, Zaire has allowed its territory to be used to supply anti-government guerrillas in Uganda, and Sudanese government troops fighting Garang's forces in southern Sudan.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has long-standing ties to the Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame, as well as to Kabila, and to leaders in Tanzania and Angola. And for all of these countries, establishing a sympathetic government in Zaire could end years of destabilization and disorder coming from a decaying and corrupt neighbor.

Because of the warm U.S. relations with Rwanda and Uganda, and the U.S. criticisms of the government in Sudan, Zairian officials and news reports here routinely accuse the United States -- long Mobutu's closest ally -- of masterminding the onslaught against the government here.

Western diplomats deny any U.S. involvement and say that what is happening is the consequence of years of mischief and drift in Zaire.

"All of these years, Zaire has been playing with fire, and now it looks like it is finally getting burned," said one Western military expert. "The Angolan government, for one, has every reason to be fed up with Kinshasa and may have figured that this was the right occasion to make them pay."

Officials in Rwanda and Uganda have spoken with increasing enthusiasm in recent days about the economic benefits of a rebel victory for their country.

"If Zaire is ripped apart by all of the hands that are getting involved in the game here, it will be a long time before anyone is able to speak of synergies," said one African diplomat. "The dismemberment of Central Africa's largest country, if it were to happen, would be the ugliest disaster we have seen yet."

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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