Kolwezi, Zaire — Zaire's strategic copper-mining region of Shaba remains politically explosive after last week's rebel invasion. According to two captured rebels, the invasion was designed to destabilize the country shortly before important ceremonies marking the swearing in of President Mobutu Sese Seko Dec. 5 for a new seven-year term. The invasion also comes shortly before a visit to Zaire by French President Francois Mitterrand Dec. 8-10.
In their incursion - as well as in two others in the past seven years - the rebels tried to exploit local resentment against what is perceived as an autocratic and highly centralized regime under President Mobutu. Local citizens resent that so little of the region's immense mineral wealth is reinvested in Shaba (which in Swahili means ''copper'').
More than 75 percent of Zaire's export earnings and 60 percent of the national budget come from sales of copper and cobalt.
The latest invasion began Nov. 13, when a strong rebel force crossed Lake Tanganyika from Tanzania and captured the lakeside town of Moba, located some 370 miles northeast of the regional capital, Lubumbashi. The central government says the town was recaptured by government troops two days later.
More than 100 rebels and a dozen civilians, including a Canadian missionary, were killed in the fighting. The missionary, a pilot, is reported to have been shot by the rebels at Moba airport after flying in two military reconnaissance officers from Lubumbashi.
Moba's remote location on the eastern border posed logistical problems for the government. It took three days to recapture the town using its elite, French-trained 31st parachute brigade, flown in from the national capital of Kinshasa some 1,200 miles away. The parachutists were later reinforced by the 13 th naval brigade based in the lakeside town of Kalemie 124 miles north of Moba.
The Mobutu government has accused the Belgian and Tanzanian governments of involvement in the invasion. Many Zairian political exiles live in Brussels.
The invasion apparently was masterminded by two opposition members who came to Tanzania from Brussels, according to evidence obtained from two captured rebels.
The streets of Kolwezi - Zaire's most important copper-mining center - and Lubumbashi are riddled with potholes, school windows are shattered, and hospitals have little medicine or equipment.
Top jobs, such as civilian governor and military commanders, are entrusted to people from other regions.
The mining centers are now ''protected'' by more than 12,000 Zairian troops, including the elite ''Kamanyola'' division at Kolwezi and an infantry brigade at Lubumbashi.
Most of the troops are from other parts of the country and do not speak the local Swahili dialect. They are regarded by many residents as more of a liability than an asset.
With a monthly salary of only 400 zaires ($10.50) - less than the cost of dinner at Lubumbashi's luxury Karavia Hotel - soldiers have difficulty making ends meet. It is unlikely that the poorly motivated and under-equipped soldiers would offer much resistance to determined invaders, residents say. The Zairian Army scattered into the bush during the last invasion in 1978, they point out.
Israeli instructors have since tried to improve training and morale, but security in Shaba continues to be uncertain.
During the early years after Zairian independence from Belgium, Katanga (Shaba's former name) attempted to secede from Zaire. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed before peace was restored in 1967.
In the last invasion of Shaba, some 4,000 ''Katangese'' gendarmes based in Zambia captured Kolwezi. The Katangese were driven out after six days but only following the intervention of French paratroopers. In 1977 Moroccan troops were flown in to restore order after rebels attacked from neighboring Angola.