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Carving Up Congo As World Stands By

In a war at Africa's heart, Rwanda appears to back a rebellion against a onetime ally.

By Lara SantoroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 1998


When Iraq invaded Kuwait eight years ago, the world's sword was swift - a ban on trade with Iraq, then US-led military action.

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But now, as Rwanda backs a rebellion in eastern Congo, the world may just let Rwanda get away with what would amount to the first dissolution of African borders since colonial times.

"An outright invasion" by Rwanda was loudly protested by Emma Bonino, the European Union commissioner for humanitarian affairs. She wondered why an urgent meeting of the Security Council had not been called.

In a startling case of dj vu, Rwandan officials deny helping the Banyamulenge - ethnic Tutsis of Rwandan origin who have proclaimed plans to secede from Congo.

Rwanda insists the present revolt in no way resembles the events of November 1996, when its troops crossed the border to help topple Mobutu Sese Seko, one of Africa's oldest dictators, in what was formerly called Zaire.

The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Congo, had started in 1996 with an insurrection by the Banyamulenge following Mobutu's refusal to grant them citizenship. The outcome delivered Laurent Desir Kabila to power in Kinshasa.

Nearly two years later, another Banyamulenge rebellion is threatening the 15-month-old regime of Laurent Kabila, one observers say has been marked by gross political mistakes and, more recently, by its near-total isolation. Yet when it was pointed out to Rwanda's Foreign Minister Anastase Gasana that at least 40 Rwandan army trucks had been seen crossing the border into eastern Congo on Wednesday alone, he replied indignantly that people were free to have their own, misguided opinions about a matter which did not concern him, or anyone else in Rwanda's government.

The denial came as no surprise. In January, when an official in Rwanda's Defense Ministry was asked to explain the presence of a large contingent of Rwandan troops in Bukavu, a sleepy town directly across the Rwandan border now entirely under rebel control, he calmly stated there were no Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil.

Rwanda in Congo

Truckloads of Rwandan troops kept crossing the border undisturbed, and people in Bukavu had started to wonder whether Congo's new leader had allowed its tiny neighbor to take over the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu in exchange for Rwanda's essential support in the war against Mobutu.

On Thursday a former official in Kabila's rebel army, Pascal Tshipata Mukeba, told the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) that a few weeks before the war to topple Mobutu began, Kabila signed a document in which he agreed to let the Banyamulenge have full control of both North and South Kivu. Rwandan officials were present when the signing took place on Oct. 23, 1996. The AFP report was denied by Kabila's own spokesperson, Dominique Sakombi Inongo, also on Thursday. An indigenous rebel group which had fought alongside the Banyamulenge and the Rwandans to topple Mobutu, declared an open war on both of its former allies, broadcasting calls for support against "the Rwandan invasion" on a station called "Radio Patriote."