By John Pomfret
(c) 1997, The Washington Post
KIGALI, Rwanda Rwanda's powerful defense minister, Paul Kagame,
has acknowledged for the first time his country's key role in the
overthrow of president Mobutu Sese Seko in neighboring Congo, saying
that the Rwandan government planned and directed the rebellion that
toppled the longtime dictator and that Rwandan troops and officers led
the rebel forces.
Rwandan forces participated in the capture of at least four cities
the Congolese capital, Kinshasa; the southern copper-mining town of
Lumbumbashi; the key western crossroads of Kenge; and the diamond
center of Kisangani, which fell March 15 in what was considered the
key battle of the war, Kagame said in an interview here Monday. He
said Rwandan "mid-level commanders'' led Congolese rebel forces
throughout the successful rebellion and Rwanda provided training and
arms for those forces even before the campaign to overthrow Mobutu
began last October.
Kagame, the 40-year-old major
general who commanded the 1994
takeover of Rwanda by a rebel army, offered what he said were
"secrets of the war'' in Congo, including the first public account by
a senior Rwandan official of that country's involvement. Several other
African countries, including Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Zambia, are
also known to have supported the rebel cause. But Kagame's account
suggests that the war, which began in the eastern Congo near the
borders of Rwanda and Uganda, was planned primarily by Rwanda, and
that the plan to remove Mobutu originated in Kigali.
"There are not many people
who thought that Mobutu was very weak.
They thought of Mobutu as a big monster who wouldn't be defeated, with
his big hat and his big stick. They thought little Rwanda and big
Zaire,'' Kagame said with a smile. "Only when we started did they
look at the map and see the possibilities.''
The Rwandans' role in the
rebellion has been controversial in
Congo. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who proclaimed himself president
of Congo in May, has maintained that his forces were assembled from
among Congo's many ethnic groups. But the large number of ethnic
Tutsis who account for a tiny percentage of Congo's population but
dominate the government and armies of Rwanda and Burundi in the
rebels' ranks have led Kabila's critics to claim Congo is being ruled
by a Rwandan occupation force.
Kagame, a Tutsi, also responded
to allegations that Tutsi officers
of the Rwandan army ordered massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees inside
Congo. The Hutu refugees fled to Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1994
after Kagame's Tutsi-led army seized power in Rwanda and ended a
campaign of massacres of Tutsis by Hutu troops and militias that
killed at least 500,000 people. Rwandan officers interviewed inside
Congo said the Tutsis were given a free hand by the Congolese rebels
to attack the Rwandan Hutus many of whom were former soldiers and
militiamen who participated in Rwanda's 1994 genocide in exchange
for backing the war against Mobutu.
While not denying the possibility
of individual atrocities, Kagame
accused U.N. officials who have leveled massacre charges against
Rwandan army and Congolese rebel forces of fallaciously trying to
equate their behavior with the genocide that Hutu extremists carried
out in Rwanda.
"It is my strong belief
that the United Nations people are trying
to deflect the blame for failures of their own making onto us,'' he
said. "Their failure to act in eastern Zaire directly caused these
problems, and when things blew up in their faces, they blamed us.''
Kagame, who holds the titles
of vice president and defense minister
and is Rwanda's most powerful leader, said that months before war, he
warned the United States that Rwanda would take military action
against Mobutu's regime and the refugee camps in eastern Congo being
used as a base by the Hutu fighters Kagame had defeated. As many as
1.1 million Hutus were housed by late 1996 in camps in eastern Congo.
Hutu militias used the
camps as bases from which they launched
raids into Rwanda, and Kagame said the Hutus had been buying weapons
and preparing a full-scale invasion of Rwanda.
Kagame said he and other
Rwandan officials attempted to persuade
the United Nations and Western countries to demilitarize the refugee
camps and separate the Hutu fighters from the real refugees. But, he
said, "they were insensitive.'' He added: "We told them clearly:
'Either you do something about the camps or you face the
While Kagame said he was
unaware of any American military support
for the rebellion, he commended the United States for "taking the
right decisions to let it proceed.''
Kagame, who studied at
the U.S. Army Command and General Staff
College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1990, has directed military
campaigns before. In the 1994 war in Rwanda, he led a rebel force of
8,000-predominantly Rwandan Tutsi exiles who had been given sanctuary
and training in Uganda against a 30,000-strong, Hutu-dominated
government army trained and equipped by France and backed by tens of
thousands of armed Hutu militiamen. U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan, the
supreme commander of NATO forces, described Kagame as "a visionary,''
a perception shared by other American and Western military officers.
The Rwandan army had already
begun training Tutsis from Congo who
had been the target of attacks by Congolese Hutus for more than three
years. Rwandan agents started making contact with other Congolese
rebel force. Slowly, the organization that would be known as the
Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo began to
Kagame said most of the
guerrillas in the alliance were Congolese
but that key units belonged to the Rwandan army.
Kagame said the battle plan as
formulated by him and his advisers
was simple. The first goal was to "dismantle the camps.'' The second
was to "destroy the structure'' of the Hutu army and militias based
in and around the camps either by bringing the fighters back to Rwanda
and "dealing with them here or scattering them.''
The third goal was broader:
toppling Mobutu. Kagame said, "it
would have been more suitable'' if Congolese rebels had done most of
the fighting against Mobutu's troops, but it also would have been
"I don't think they
were fully prepared to carry it out alone,''
he said. "We did continue to take some role because we thought doing
it halfway would be very dangerous.''
Kagame acknowledged that
James Kabari, whom Western and Congolese
military officers point to as the senior commander, is a Rwandan army
officer. "He's been assigned to help the army of Congo,'' Kagame
said. "He's been requested to organize the army, training. He's one
of many able commanders we've had around.''
A senior Congolese officer whom Congolese
government officials have
identified as the top commander of the alliance, Gen. Nindaga Masasu,
Kagame said, served in the Rwandan army.