DR Congo

Zaire Rebels Say Kisangani Surrounded

6:58 PM EST
TINGI TINGI, Zaire (Reuter) - Rebels advancing in eastern Zaire said they had surrounded the city of Kisangani where civilians have been fleeing an expected attack.

The radio of the rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) said the government was deserting Kisangani, the base for its army's troubled counter-offensive against the rebels.

"The AFDL forces have now surrounded Kisangani," the Voice the People radio said from Goma, the largest city seized by rebels who now control a 600-mile border strip.

"The people are awaiting the arrival of (rebel leader) Laurent Kabila. The AFDL forces are in evidence on the battle front in Kisangani and the Zairian government is fleeing," said the broadcast, monitored by the BBC.

No independent account of the situation around Kisangani was immediately available but travelers from the area said on Saturday there was no sign of rebels. The last fighting was reported Wednesday about 25 miles to the north.

Several sources in the city had said the surrounding bush was heavily mined and the three main approach roads were manned by government troops and their mainly Serb mercenary backers.

The city straddles the Zaire river and would appear difficult to surround in practice. Many civilians have left at night in dugout canoes, the safest way to escape without encountering either a minefield or government troops.

The mines could become a deadly trap not only for advancing rebels but also for hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting Hutu refugees trudging through the jungle toward Kisangani after being displaced by earlier fighting.

"Lots of people are leaving Kisangani by the river at night. I spent last night on the river and saw many pirogues coming downstream," said a missionary who reached Kisangani airport after traveling 60 miles up river in a canoe.

Some reports said soldiers had set up check-points downstream from Kisangani and were stopping passing boats.

Aid agency officials flew deep into rebel-held territory on Sunday in search of Rwandan and Burundian Hutu refugees who left camps in eastern Zaire to escape from the rebels.

The refugees include former Rwandan troops and militiamen who fled Rwanda in 1994 in fear of reprisals for the genocide of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates. They say they will be killed by the Tutsi-led rebels.

Hundreds of refugees have returned to the wreckage of Tingi Tingi camp, 130 miles southeast of Kisangani, which was abandoned by 170,000 Hutus nine days ago shortly before it was overrun by the rebels.

"More are coming in every day and they say there are thousands more coming from the forest. They say they want to go home," Martin Griffiths, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Great Lakes region of central Africa, told Reuters at the camp.

The rebels say they accept a U.N. call for talks with the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko, who has held power for 31 years, but they have rejected the idea of a cease-fire.

Mobutu, who set himself up as the only man who could hold together the nation of more than 200 different ethnic groups, had cancer surgery in Europe last August. He has spent little time in Zaire since then and is now at his French Riviera villa.

Reuters Limited

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