GOMA, ZAIRE — With its Army routed, its prime minister's future in flux, and its ailing leader out of the country, the corrupt and ineffectual regime of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko seems to be reaching its final days.
As Kinshasa buzzes with rumors and Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo tries to hold on to power after being voted out of office Tuesday, Laurent-Desir Kabila and his rebels plan to make sure it is they, and not Mr. Mobutu, who call the final plays in the game.
As the rebels near the finish line, Mr. Kabila spoke with the Monitor about the strategy that has brought his rebels this far. But there is a distinct possibility that the rebels have had some outside help along the way.
Although its front-line troops have only just captured Kisangani, some 800 miles from Kinshasa, Kabila has said his rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire intends to fight all the way to the capital, if Zaire's leaders don't swiftly come to terms.
Five months ago, when the rebels emerged from the hills of Southern Kivu Province, few people took seriously their threat to overrun the entire country. But after the fall last weekend of Kisangani, Zaire's third largest city, it seems possible that the shadowy rebel army will make it all the way to Kinshasa.
Originally dominated by ethnic Tutsis, who rebelled last October following government pogroms, the rebels remain an unknown and largely invisible force.
Since November, few journalists or aid workers have been able to get anywhere near the fighting thanks to the rebels' tight control over movement in their territory.
Outside help ...
Zaire and its allies claim there is a reason for this secrecy: They allege that the bulk of the fighting is being done by Rwandan and Ugandan troops, veterans of the 1986 toppling of former Ugandan leader Milton Obote and the 1994 campaign that ousted Rwanda's genocidal Hutu regime. Both countries have poor relations with Mobutu, who allowed Ugandan rebels and Rwandan Hutu infiltrators to operate from Zaire.
Uganda and Rwanda have consistently denied these claims, but Westerners in the region have noted distinct similarities in style between the Zairean rebels and the Rwandan Patriotic Army.
Journalists were present last November when RPA troops attacked across the border, ostensibly to drive off Zairean Armed Forces (FAZ) who had fired across the frontier. The town fell to the rebels the same day.
Since then, some of the rebel officers in Goma have been identified as Zairean-born Tutsis who had left Zaire in the late 1980s and early 1990s to join the exiled Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. Whatever the nature of the links between the rebel forces and Rwanda, nobody in eastern Zaire doubts that they are strong.
Since the fall of Goma, Kabila - a non-Tutsi whose name was first linked to the rebellion a month after it broke out - has been at pains to show that Zaireans from all ethnic groups are flocking to the rebels' cause.
He claims to have more than 15,000 men under arms, including numerous defectors from FAZ. In Goma, the townspeople, with their ear for accents, confirm that the ethnic composition of the rebel army is diverse.
The source of the rebels' ammunition and other military equipment is also unknown, although they have captured large quantities of both from FAZ and its allies, the exiled Hutu army.
Western military sources say that the rebels' needs are probably light: While they have mortars and some artillery pieces, the rebels seem to rely mainly on small arms and the tactics of stealth and surprise, perfected by the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1994.
Their ability to travel light and forage off the land seems to have spared the rebels many of the logistical nightmares that would dog a more conventional army trying to operate along the jungle tracks and broken roads of Zaire.
People in the towns captured thus far say the rebels seem to operate in small groups, often infiltrating at night. The resulting confusion, together with a few mortar rounds, has usually been enough to frighten off the demoralized, untrained, and unpaid Zairean Army soldiers.
The identities of the commanders directing these tactics remain largely unknown, although Kabila's son is officially credited with leading the capture of Kisangani. Whoever Kabila's generals are, they could yet win the war without fighting a battle.
... or insider's knowledge?
In an interview this week, Kabila said that his fighters' knowledge of the terrain - mostly thick jungle, rivers, and swamps - ensured they have little difficulty coping with the 300-odd European mercenaries imported by Mobutu at the beginning of this year.
He said the main threat to the advance would come from the mercenaries' handful of MiG fighter jets and Hind attack helicopters, which inflicted 56 casualties on the rebel army before Kisangani fell and were last reported to be in Mbuji-Mayi - Zaire's diamond-mine center 500 miles to the south.
While some rebel leaders have said that the southern city of Lumbumbashi is the rebels' next priority, Kabila said his men are acquiring boats to advance down the Zaire River toward Kinshasa.
With Mobutu ailing in southern France, his government melting away in the capital, and people clamoring for Kabila to come to Kinshasa, the rebels planned attack by river could yet turn into a pleasure cruise to victory.