Zaire rebels seize city Mobutu's government in danger as foes capture Kisangani

'Victory is at hand'

Elite military unit switches sides, chases Serbian mercenaries

March 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KINSHASA, Zaire -- Kisangani, Zaire's third largest city and the last major government-held outpost in eastern Zaire, fell to rebel forces yesterday, posing the most serious threat yet to the 31-year-rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko.

The capital, Kinshasa, was quiet as details of the battle spread slowly among the population, but for many the fall of Kisangani, the centerpiece of the government's fight against the 6-month-old rebellion, raised serious questions about the ability of Mobutu's government to survive.

More worrisome for the government than the fall of the heavily defended city was the reported switch of elite government forces in the city to the rebel side, Western diplomats and Zairian officials say.

With a rebel column of armored vehicles moving toward the city on Friday night from the northeast, government officials said, elements of the 31st Paratroop Brigade, one of the country's best armed and trained units, abandoned the government cause and attacked a company of Serbian mercenaries who had been leading the defense of Kisangani.

The mercenaries, under fire, abandoned the international airport aboard helicopters yesterday, retreating to Mobutu's home village of Gbadolite, diplomats and government officials here said.

"It appears the rebels infiltrated the town through the jungle and starting shooting at the same time as the armored column was moving toward the airport," said a Western military expert. "It looks like that was enough to panic the defenders pretty badly. And when the Zairian troops started shooting at them, the mercenaries flew out of there in a hurry."

The rebel radio station, the Voice of the People, which is broadcast from Goma, the eastern city that is the de facto rebel capital, announced that Kisangani had been abandoned by the defending forces and said triumphantly, "Victory is at hand."

Government troops that did not rally to the rebel side pillaged Kisangani before fleeing across the Zaire River and heading into the northern hinterlands, according to Western diplomats.

The fall of Kisangani represents the final unraveling of the war strategy of the Mobutu government, which relied upon Serbian mercenaries and battle-hardened Hutu fighters from the former Rwandan Army to shore up its own forces.

Even before this loss, rebels of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo controlled over 30 percent of Zaire's territory and appeared confident of expanding quickly into areas of central and southern Zaire that are rich in minerals.

Few here expect much further military resistance by Mobutu's government, which now faces a strong possibility of being forced to negotiate its own dissolution or being swept away by a coup.

Mobutu, who has been in France for cancer treatment since August, has faced numerous rebellions during his rule. As an important Cold War ally of the West, however, he was periodically saved by foreign interventions sponsored by the United States or France.

The fall of Kisangani came on the same day that a United Nations envoy to Zaire began talks with the leader of the rebellion, Laurent Kabila. The United Nations has been pressing for a cease-fire. Although the rebels have accepted the cease-fire terms in principle, they have insisted upon direct talks with Mobutu first.

With the fall of Kisangani and the disintegration of the government army under way, Western diplomats here question whether Kabila will feel the need to negotiate at all.

Zaire's rebellion began in the far east of the country in October with the uprising of Zairian ethnic Tutsi.

Rwanda is believed to have armed the rebels in revenge for Zaire's having armed thousands of Rwandan Hutu exiles living in Zairian refugee camps.

Since the end of Rwanda's genocidal civil war in 1994, the Hutu in Zaire, veterans of Rwanda's defeated army, had regularly mounted armed incursions into Rwanda. Uganda, Burundi and Angola, each of which has separate scores to settle with Zaire, have also helped arm the rebels.

Sensing the potential for unpredictable change here, France has in recent days reportedly reinforced its military presence in Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Congo, to evacuate French citizens from Zaire.

Political troubles in 1991 and 1993 led to heavy rioting and looting in Kinshasa, mostly by soldiers, and many people here fear a repeat of the unrest as fleeing troops approach the capital and government control slips even further.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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