Battle Looms for Key Zairean City Kisangani
GOMA, Zaire (Reuter) - Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo Wednesday dismissed suggestions that Zaire's third city of Kisangani was about to fall, saying Tutsi-led rebels may have won battles in the east but they had not won the war.
With the two sides facing up for a showdown over Zaire's strategic third city, ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko's son and spokesman Mobutu Nzanga predicted from France that the rebels would face their first real test at Kisangani.
France, a traditional supporter of Mobutu, said it would ask the European Union to help organize a humanitarian airlift to refugees in the area and that in the absence of a truce the idea of an outside military protection force may need to be revived.
Rebel leader Laurent Kabila, a veteran Mobutu foe who took up arms in October, has resisted foreign pressure for a truce.
"Kabila has won battles but he has not won the war," Kengo told a news conference in Kinshasa. "The advantage of Zaire is its size," he added.
He accused the foreign press of prematurely predicting the fall of Kisangani, headquarters of army operations in the war zone. "The rebels are not at the gates of Kisangani," he said.
The army has deployed Serb mercenaries in the city and sown minefields on its outskirts.
But the rebels, who hold towns and territory in the east and have met little resistance on their drive west and south into mineral-rich Shaba province, say they are close to Kisangani.
"Kisangani is in our grip and we are putting constant pressure on the town. The people are waiting for us and it will soon be over," Raphael Ngenda, their information commissioner, said in the eastern border town of Goma earlier.
Mobutu's son told Reuters from the family villa in the South of France the rebels would face fierce resistance in Kisangani.
"I think that they will face a first real conflict with the Zairian army if they try to capture the town," he said. "Before this they advanced through towns without real effort."
He said all was well with his father's health and predicted he would return home later this week. Mobutu, who had prostate cancer surgery in Switzerland in August, has spent most of his time in Europe since then.
The fighting has uprooted many tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees who fled to Zaire in 1994 fearing reprisals after the genocide of minority Tutsis in Rwanda by Hutu hardliners.
On the diplomatic front, the United States said it was still pressing for a cease-fire and would continue to discuss a multinational force idea, put forward by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and backed by France.
Zaire accepted a U.N. cease-fire plan, the rebels did not.
Kengo said that the collapse of Zaire, which accuses neighbors Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi of fomenting the war and invading to support the rebels, would affect the whole region. "Once you have lit a fire it's very difficilut to put it out."
The rebels accuse Zaire of denying them citizenship and seeking to expel them to Rwanda, their ancestral home.
Asked to account for a catalog of army defeats, Kengo took a veiled swipe at the army command.
"You know since Caesar's time it is said that there are no bad troops. I'll let you finish the phrase," he said. The famous military proverb from Roman times adds that there are only bad commanders.
Asked about growing popular support for Kabila, he replied: "The Bible instructs us that Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem and everyone applauded but five days later he was crucified."