DR Congo

Zaire Rebels Said Massing Near Kisangani

10 5:05 PM EST
KINSHASA, Zaire (Reuter) - Rebels closing in on Zaire's city of Kisangani are concentrating their forces on the road leading into town from the southeast, military sources said Monday.

The government denied rebel claims to have surrounded Kisangani, where the army has based a faltering counter-offensive to check a five-month guerrilla campaign.

But a regional military analyst and local army sources said rebels were massing on the southeastern flank after using Zaire's vast river network to approach Kisangani to the north.

"The momentum is certainly with the rebels. But they may be forced to stop and consolidate their positions around the city if they meet stiff resistance," the analyst said.

The Zairian defense ministry says rebels are within 60 miles to the north and northeast of the city, and within 30 miles to the southeast.

Independent sources place the rebels in similar positions, but closer to the north where they report that, using the Lindi River, the rebels were able to take the town of Bengamisa last week to reach within 25 miles of Kisangani.

The government -- like the rebels -- has attached huge symbolic value to the likely battle for Kisangani. It has concentrated Serb mercenaries in the area and planted mines around the city, according to local sources, to stall rebel advances.

Regional military analysts say that should Kisangani fall other neighboring regions such as the copper-rich province of Shaba, and diamond-rich Kasai risked falling into rebel control like a collapsing stack of cards.

In many instances since fighting began last October, the notoriously indisciplined Zaire army has fled active engagement.

But the military analysts said that in some places better trained troops have used delaying tactics with success to stall the rebel advance on Kisangani.

Monday tens of thousands of refugees flooded into the eastern Zaire town of Ubundu and rebels said said they were advancing on Kisangani despite some resistance.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) said the sudden influx overwhelmed the four aid workers in Ubundu, 60 miles southeast of Kisangani.

"Tens of thousands of refugees poured into Ubundu over the weekend and there are possibly as many as 100,000 there now," said WFP spokeswoman Michele Quintaglie.

"The refugees fled Tingi Tingi before it fell to the rebels and our reports indicate they are afraid, are talking about leaving Ubundu ...," she added.

Tingi Tingi camp was abandoned by its 170,000 Rwandan and Burundian refugees 10 days ago before it fell to Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire rebel group.

A French cabinet minister who visited eastern Zaire at the weekend said only a militarily-protected relief operation could save refugees from being killed by advancing rebels or starving.

The Hutus, mostly refugees who fled Rwanda three years ago, live in fear of reprisals for the genocide of up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. They were forced ever deeper into Zaire by rebel advances since October.

The rebels want to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko, who has ruled with absolute power for most of 31 years. He is ailing with cancer in France and the rebels have rejected a U.N. call for a cease-fire, insisting on direct negotiations with him.

Reuters Limited

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