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Rumblings of war in heart of Africa

US and UN send envoys to stop Congo conflict.

By Abraham McLaughlin, Duncan Woodside / June 23, 2004


There's an eery familiarity to the military maneuvering in and around Congo, a giant nation in the heart of Africa.

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Some observers worry that the region is slipping into a second African "world war" - a repeat of the 1998-2003 conflict that involved troops from six nations and left 3 million dead.

Refugees are now streaming out of eastern Congo. Congolese troops are positioning near the border with longtime rival Rwanda, which is threatening retaliation. Congo's young president, Joseph Kabila, reshuffled his cabinet after an alleged coup attempt and has apparently discussed getting military help from Angola and Tanzania.

Yet there are also signs that this war could be more easily prevented than the last. For one thing, this time the players have more to lose. Rwanda, for instance, gets most of its budget from outside donors and risks losing the money if it goes to war. And outsiders like South Africa want access to Congo's gold, diamond, copper, and other resources - hard to extract amid conflict.

For sure, though, it's a high-stakes game. If by bringing in troops and improving ties with anti-Rwandan militias, Congo's leaders "are creating an ad hoc army" to take on Rwanda, "they could have a real problem on their hands," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. Partly that's because "the Rwandans are the best in the business" of waging war in Africa.

Rwanda is tiny - smaller than the state of Massachusetts. Congo is more than three times the size of Texas. But Rwanda jump-started the 1996 rebellion that ousted Congo's (then Zaire's) longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. It also helped spark the rebellion that started the first big war in 1998. That conflict's rate of killing - including deaths by starvation and illness - was the equivalent of one Sept. 11 every day and a half for five straight years. A peace deal brokered by South Africa in 2003 ended the conflict and set up a power-sharing plan that included Rwanda-backed rebels in a transitional government. Congo aims to have elections by 2005.

Indeed, "The whole story of the Congo [conflict] is about the relationship between Congo and Rwanda," says a regional analyst who asked not to be named.

In the saga's latest chapter, earlier this month, two renegade militias in Congo occupied the eastern city of Bukavu for a week. Congo accuses Rwanda of actively backing those militias. Congo responded by chasing the groups out of Bukavu and putting 5,000 to 10,000 troops near the Rwanda border.

Rwanda reacted forcefully. "We shall not sit back and watch these developments, as we have a country and people to defend," said Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Muligande.

Besides the Rwanda tension, there was apparently a failed coup in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, on June 11. But it may not point to instability. Some figure Kabila orchestrated it to give himself an excuse to reshuffle the cabinet and consolidate power. In fact, some see the "coup" and the eastern troop deployment as pro-active efforts to assert more control over his notoriously ungovernable nation.