The War's End in Congo Ricochets Into Neighbors

Hoped-for stability in Central Africa elusive

Like a fire spreading through dry grass, the overthrow six weeks ago of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now Congo) has reignited conflict in countries close by, rather than producing a balm for the region.

Since the day after rebels led by Laurent-Desir Kabila walked into Kinshasa on May 17 and declared President Mobutu's 30-year dictatorship over, Angola to the southwest has been on the brink of resumed civil war. To the east, Hutu militias in Rwanda mount daily ambushes and attacks. To the west, fighting broke out in Congo-Brazzaville July 5. Hopes of peace there are fragile.

Rebel leader Kabila may have inspired insurgents in other countries to rise up, political analysts say. And the end of Mobutu-run Zaire as a launching pad for rebels bent on destabilizing nearby countries may have driven some of Mobutu's enemies to crack down on these foes.

But, some pundits say, these flare-ups may be short-term conflicts that in the grand scheme of things eventually will make the region a safer, more stable place.

"The fall of ... Mobutu will encourage people in other countries to think the situation in the region is more fluid than it has been," says Richard Cornwell, a political analyst at the Africa Institute, a think tank in Pretoria, South Africa. "You're seeing some spillover effect, but that does not mean it's sustainable."

Mobutu was a political opportunist who allowed his vast country to be used by rebels trying to overthrow the governments of neighbors Angola, Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda. His comeuppance came when the same countries ganged up on him. They supported Mr. Kabila's seven-month rebellion that culminated in the occupation of the capital, Kinshasa, and the renaming of the country as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By far, the biggest repercussions are being felt in Angola, where a 20-year civil war between rebels of UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), led by Jonas Savimbi, and the government controlled by the MPLA (Popular Movement of the Liberation of Angola) appears to be on the verge of restarting as United Nations peacekeepers look on impotently.

Mobutu was one of the biggest backers of Mr. Savimbi, and UNITA came to Mobutu's aid in his fight against Kabila. In turn, the MPLA armed Kabila as a way to wipe out Savimbi's arms supply routes and outlets to sell diamonds through Zaire.

Now, elements in the MPLA government appear to believe that the fall of Mobutu, Savimbi's ally, could win them the military victory they have long sought. They have been trying to retake territory UNITA holds in diamond-rich northern Angola.

Some diplomats in the region are worried that UNITA is taking up positions elsewhere in the country and flying in arms.

For Angola, "I suspect Kabila's overthrow of Mobutu may actually be stabilizing in the long run, in that it will ultimately make UNITA's military campaign untenable," says David Aronson, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The fighting we're seeing there now is [President Jose Eduardo] dos Santos pressing his advantage. The test will be whether he continues to try to woo the peaceful parliamentary wing of UNITA. That, in combination with his military strength, ought to put Savimbi permanently out of business."

THE Congo Republic is just across a river from the new Congo. The fighting that broke out there June 5 has killed hundreds of people. But it is more of an internal struggle between troops loyal to President Pascal Lissouba and his nemesis, former President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. The tensions have been simmering since legislative elections in 1992, when Mr. Sassou-Nguesso accused President Lissouba of rigging the vote. Since then, both have maintained private militias.

Regional observers say Sassou-Nguesso was encouraged by the fall of Mobutu, who maintained close ties with Lissouba. There are indications, still unsubstantiated, that Sassou-Nguesso received armed support from Angola and Kabila. Both stood to gain by flushing out the new bases set up by pro-Mobutu soldiers and UNITA in Congo-Brazzaville after Mobutu's fall.

Another area that has seen an upsurge in killings is on Zaire's eastern flank, where Kabila's rebellion began in Kivu Province.

Many observers expected that tiny, troubled Rwanda and Burundi would become more peaceful places after Kabila broke up refugee camps in Zaire on their borders last fall. The camps harbored Rwandan Hutu militias that orchestrated Rwanda's 1994 genocide and served as bases to mount cross-border attacks.

Kabila did a favor to the Tutsi governments of the two countries by removing the threats on their frontiers. But the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Rwanda has included a return of armed men, who have mounted attacks on schools, government offices, humanitarian aid workers, and survivors of the genocide.

Hutus militias are flourishing in Burundi, too, and the government has cracked down in response.

While disturbed by this violence, the Rwandan government argues that it is far less destabilizing to have its enemy within its borders than without.

As for Uganda, the assumption was that the Western border would have been sealed off so that rebels backed by Sudan would be starved of supplies. But on the contrary, combat has increased in the country.

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