KINSHASA, ZAIRE — As Eastern Zaire's upstart rebels continue to gain territory at a remarkably fast pace, it is becoming harder to dismiss the possibility that sub-Saharan Africa's largest nation may be splitting apart, and threatening to inflame much of central Africa as it does.
The rebels' stated goal of overthrowing what they say is President Mobutu Sese Seko's corrupt regime still seems quixotic; the multiethnic rebel alliance is believed to number only a few thousand, and Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, is a thousand miles away over rough terrain.
Yet their decisive military strikes and continued momentum during the past six weeks have been impressive, and all the more disturbing because of the help they have received from Rwanda.
Rebel commanders deny official backing, but it was Rwandan mortars that allowed the rebels to take their first major cities, and Rwanda's defense chief has admitted some in his military have crossed over to join the rebels.
Western diplomats worry the scenario will foment terrorism and more instability in an already politically fragile region. "The region will explode," says one official in a Western embassy. "It will be dangerous not just for Africa but also ... for Western nations and private companies who operate here. If you allow one country to hold up his neighbor, each country will say, 'Hey, me too.' "
Like so many of Africa's conflicts, this one finds its roots in ethnicity. The rebels first claimed to be fighting for the rights of oppressed Zairean Tutsis. They targeted Rwandan Hutu militia in the region who had been using refugee camps as bases from which to continue the slaughter of Tutsis that they began during Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
The rebel offensive effectively drove the militia from the camps, allowing more than 500,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees to return home last month. Several hundred thousand refugees believed to remain in Zaire are scattered by the fighting, and the hunt for fleeing militia apparently continues.
Last week, reports surfaced that rebels were separating out young men from other refugees, and piles of massacred bodies were discovered. The US State Department condemned the killings and asked that international organizations be allowed into rebel territory to investigate.
Diplomats and other analysts see a tidy explanation for it all. They point out that the rebels have created a buffer zone for Tutsi-led Rwanda, eliminating the presence of the Hutu refugee camps and ending two years of violent border attacks.
They presume this is Rwanda's sole aim, to simply keep the land recently won. And they say rebel leader Laurent Kabila - who talks of ousting President Mobutu - is nothing more than a front. It is, says one diplomat, "Rwanda manipulating Kabila's ego."
Still, those same analysts wonder if Rwanda ever thought the rebels would get as far as they have. Mr. Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire now holds 320-mile-long strip of land bordering three of Zaire's neighbors and is poised to push west toward the regional capital of Kisangani.
Zaire's Army controls only one major town in the east, Bunia, which rebels had previously claimed to have captured. But rebels have the city surrounded.
Most humiliating for Zaireans, rebel gains have come with hardly a shot fired from their own ill-equipped and corrupt Army. Soldiers have fled their posts on the mere rumor of approaching rebels, pillaging from the citizens they are supposed to protect.
If the same happens in Kisangani, a small rebellion would become a serious regional crisis. Kisangani is a strategic staging post for any counterattack and, poised on the Zaire River, a key trade link with Kinshasa.
This isn't the first time Zaire's Army has been shamed. But during past rebellions, when Mobutu was a cold-war ally, French, Belgian, and American troops were sent to the rescue. Not so now.
Barring outside help in the form of mercenaries, a political solution seems the only tack that could get Zaire its land back. Yet with the upper hand, the rebels may see no reason to talk.