How Zaire Was Won By an Unlikely Leader

Strategists unknown; a long trek, not resistance, slowed Kabila's forces the most.

The conquest of this giant Central African nation by the rebels of Laurent-Desir Kabila in a mere eight months was one of the most remarkable military takeovers in modern African history. Yet it was a war not waged with the latest in high technology or hardware, but mainly by men traveling in trucks with nothing more than light arms and mortars.

Military analysts say that only the huge distances covered - a trek equivalent to crossing Western Europe - prevented the rebels from capturing the country even sooner.

This was not a conventional civil war, per se. The unpaid, undisciplined Zairean government troops presented little resistance to the rebels. What began as an uprising of a mere 2,000 men gradually built into a fairly well-disciplined army of between 30,000 and 40,000 troops.

"It's quite something to think about. Just a few months ago, the rebel movement didn't exist," one Western diplomat says. "In seven months, they threw together a large guerrilla movement from scratch."

The logistics of moving men and materiel over huge distances and rugged terrain, not the government troops, "were the war's great constraint," the diplomat says. "It was not waged in modern terms with air drops or bridge[-building] support."

An estimated 5,000 rebel troops are now in Kinshasa, having taken the capital last weekend. Their journey started in the Kivu region of eastern Zaire, snaked north to Bunia and Beni, west to Kisangani, south to Lubumbashi, and then west to Kinshasa.

At first, the rebels needed to stay near supply routes of their foreign backers. But as their strength and territory increased, they were able to operate more independently. After capturing the strategic town of Kisangani, they moved south to take control of diamond, copper, and cobalt mines as a source of revenue.

The rebellion began in October in eastern Zaire. The local ethnic Tutsis, called the Banyamulenge, backed by Rwanda, rose up after the local governor revoked their citizenship and threatened to expel them from the country. They entered and shut down several huge refugee camps of Rwandan Hutus. The camps were used as bases by former Hutu militias and soldiers who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide of about 800,000 mainly Tutsi people.

The original intention was to create a buffer zone away from the borders of Tutsi-led Rwanda and Burundi and break up the refugee camps, where at least 1.2 million people were grouped.

With their mission to break up the camps accomplished, the rebellion quickly took on its own momentum. With each battle, the rebels recruited more fighters and captured more small arms and mortars from the government.

No doubt due to in part to Mr. Kabila's Maoist training in the 1960s, the insurgents adopted a Chinese-style chain of command, naming positions like company commander, but avoiding the use of Western-style military ranks. The identity of the rebels' key military leaders is still unknown. Some Western observers say this could be because they are Rwandans or other foreigners, which could be politically embarrassing for Kabila as he tries to form a new government.

After capturing Bunia and Beni on the Rwandan border, the rebels moved north, increasing their numbers and weaponry. Then came the most difficult terrain as they turned west into the jungle and rain forest toward the strategic river town of Kisangani.

As the area became more difficult to penetrate, the rebels supplemented their land transport with light aircraft, which was provided both by their foreign backers and contracted by themselves.

The fall of Kisangani marked a crucial point in the war. It dispelled any illusions that a government counteroffensive, even when backed by foreign mercenaries, could halt the rebels. In the six months before Kisangani fell, the rebels generally needed a two-to-three week pause after each battle to resupply and regroup. After Kisangani, the interval shrank to one week.

Kabila's boast that he would march into Kinshasa no longer seemed so unlikely.

As the offensive moved south toward Lubumbashi, in Shaba Province, the rebel alliance began to use railroads to transport its growing army. Its ethnic makeup also became more diversified as the alliance captured new parts of the country and volunteers joined in, although the vanguard continued to be dominated by the Tutsis.

The final push to Kinshasa involved transporting men via boats, large military transport planes, and as always, trucks.

Now that the alliance has won the war, and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Army is expected to go through inevitable restructuring, military analysts say. Eventually former government soldiers who have been demobilized will be incorporated into the new military. But this will be a gradual process.

A large priority now is securing Kinshasa, a sprawling city of 5 million people. Its international airport was closed during the first days after the rebel takeover. An expected victory parade for Kabila, who arrived Tuesday night but has shunned public appearances, has not yet been held.

While hundreds if not thousands of former government soldiers have surrendered, an unknown number have melted into the civilian populace, taking their weapons with them. Diplomats say this is fueling a crime wave throughout the city.

The security situation has surely not been helped by the fact that Kabila still has not named his transitional government. Western diplomats hope for a broad-based government representing the country's many political and ethnic interests.

But so far there have been problems between Kabila and the most prominent opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, who wants the post of prime minister. Ousted President Mobutu Sese Seko had twice appointed and then sacked Mr. Tshisekedi from that post in the past.

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