Angolan troops join Zaire war
CHRIS MCGREAL reports from Kinshasa
ANGOLAN combatants are using both sides in Zaire's civil war to repay debts and settle old scores hundreds of miles from home.
Several thousand Angolans - some members of the Unita rebel movement, others born in Angola as the sons of Zairean exiles - have been fighting in key battles also involving Ugandans, Rwandans, Serbs and Ukranians.
Although Zaire's government has denied Unita troops are fighting alongside President Mobutu Sese Seko's decrepit army, Angolans are among dozens of foreigners wounded in battle who have been flown to hospitals in Kinshasa. At least a dozen Unita soldiers have been treated for serious wounds in recent days, alongside Rwandan Hutus who make up the bulk of the injured foreigners.
Thirty-seven foreign soldiers occupy a single ward at Kinshasa's main public hospital. An official at the hospital said they are treating troops from a variety of African nations.
"The latest arrival was on Saturday from the fighting before the rebels seized Kisangani. Over the past few weeks we have had all sorts. Mainly they are Rwandans but there were a number of Angolans and some others we couldn't identify. We think they may be from Togo but we're not sure," he said.
Foreign military sources say Unita soldiers crossed into southern Zaire, were transported to an air base at Kamina, possibly by train. They were flown more than 1,000 miles to the far northeast of the country where they fought a losing battle against the Ugandan army and Zairean rebels for control of the towns of Bunia, Beni, and Isoro on the road to Kisangani which fell to the rebels at the weekend.
But military sources say Unita became weary of having to lead the fight on behalf of the Zairean army whose own troops invariably turned and fled. Although Unita soldiers remain in Zaire, their number has diminished this month.
Unita is repaying an old debt by despatching its soldiers to fight on behalf of Zaire's ailing dictator. Its leader, Jonas Savimbi, owes the very survival of his movement to Mr Mobutu. When Unita was isolated and near defeat during the 1970's, Zaire's autocrat provided money and bases to keep the war against Angola's Marxist government alive. After Washington and Pretoria took Unita on board as their client, Zaire was a principal conduit for weapons and American assistance.
Even when Unita's former allies in the US and South Africa cast it aside for thrusting Angola back to war after losing the 1992 election, Mr Mobutu was happy to ignore an international embargo and keep his borders open to Jonas Savimbi's fighters. With the assistance of De Beers, Zaire provided a critical route for Unita to sell off diamonds mined in captured Angolan territory and so fund its war.
While Unita has debts to repay, the Angolan government has old scores to settle with Mr Mobutu. It has flown more than 1,000 young men to Rwanda or eastern Zaire to join the rebels fighting the remnants of his regime. The Angolan state airline, TAAG, has made regular but non-scheduled flights to the Rwandan capital over recent weeks.
The Zairean army last week claimed to have captured documents from the rebels written in Portuguese, which it said was proof that the insurgents are backed by the Angolan government.
Some of the Angolans joining the Zairean rebels have their own reasons to fight. Most were born in Angola of Zairean fathers who supported the 1960 secessionist rebellion by the southern province of Katanga, now called Shaba. After it was reunited four years later amid considerable bloodletting, many of the defeated Katangan troops fled into Angola where they spawned a new generation of insurgents who have returned to their fathers homeland in recent weeks.