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Rebels Fight Government Forces As Full-scale War Engulfs Congo

By Lynne Duke
The Washington Post
KINSHASA, Congo

Full-scale warfare erupted inside Congo's capital Thursday, as Rwandan-backed rebels fought government troops and their allies in several neighborhoods close to the city center.

President Laurent Kabila's army, along with troops from Zimbabwe, Angola and Naimbia, appeared to be waging a stiff defense against what officials now concede is heavy, well-armed rebel infiltration around this city of more 5 million people.

The rebels took up positions in the most heavily populated sector of the city, nicknamed "China" by local residents because of its traffic and congestion, on the city's east side near the airport. Officials Thursday were attempting to clear civilians from rebel-held pockets, apparently to make it easier to attack them.

"Our armed forces are progressing with much caution, which means that the operation is lasting longer than first thought," said Gaetan Kakudji, Kabila's minister of state, as he spoke to reporters at Ndjili International Airport.

The government flew some foreign journalists to Ndjili in a Zimbabwean helicopter gunship to show that the airport was unscathed and still in government hands. From there, the reporters could hear echoes of mortar and automatic weapons fire from the fighting that raged just five miles west, toward Kinshasa's downtown.

It had appeared earlier in the week that Kabila and his allies had the Rwandan-backed rebels on the run. Warplanes had hit rebel positions in the southwestern province of Lower Congo, and the government reported that it had stopped a rebel column attempting to move on Kinshasa.

But the rebels apparently slipped around government defenses. Instead of entering the city from the southwest, they managed to move to the city's southeast side and filter hundreds, perhaps even thousands of troops into the China area. Officials say they believe that some rebels had been in place in Kinshasa but undercover for several weeks, awaiting the moment to strike.

Thus, the battle for Kinshasa is on, with armed forces of as many as seven African countries fighting in the heart of the continent for control of a vast, fractured nation that is struggling through its second military conflict in less than two years.

The fight, which has caused a regional rift between several African leaders, threatens to degenerate into a humanitarian catastrophe, with reports of massacres in the eastern war zones and refugees fleeing the fighting there. Here in the capital, food, water and gasoline shortages have become epidemic. Rebels control the main port through which supplies are imported, as well as the country's main hydroelectric dam, where they apparently have cut off power to the city, leaving it with only limited electricity for 11 straight days.

Kabila is fighting the same forces that brought him to power 15 months ago: Congolese from the Tutsi ethnic group, along with troops from Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated army. Though Tutsis had been the core of the military force that overthrew dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and installed Kabila to power, they turned against him because of disputes over how to deal with the ethnic violence that plagues Congo's border with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. They launched the current rebellion in that eastern border area on Aug. 2.

Diplomats also believe that Ugandan troops - another force that helped install Kabila - are in the fray, and some reports Thursday suggested that Burundi's Tutsi-led government had jumped in as well.

But Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, have sent troops, fighter planes and tanks to help Kabila, and Zimbabwe now is sending in reinforcements for the fight over Kinshasa.

Some Kinshasa residents were pitching in for the fight, albeit with chilling results. They helped troops search out rebel elements in the hardscrabble suburbs of Masina, Mokali and Ndjili, and one local journalist said he saw the charred remains of about 40 bodies in different parts of the city where residents had killed suspected rebels themselves. It was not clear whether the dead rebels were Congolese or foreign.

Also unclear is who is who among the living. For that reason, Kabila's troops Thursday began wearing their camouflage jackets inside out, so they wouldn't shoot or arrest one another.