Central African Conflict Pushes Giant Zaire to Brink

One of Africa's biggest, potentially richest, and most anarchic nations may be bound for collapse.

Zaire, whose dictator has been absent with illness for two months, has been set adrift by expanding ethnic conflict and a potentially immense refugee crisis.

Ethnic Tutsis, who have lived for generations in this Central African nation, have rebelled and easily taken eastern territory from the disheveled Zairean Army with the likely help of neighboring, Tutsi-led Rwanda.

At least half-a-million refugees, mostly ethnic Hutus who fled conflict with Tutsis in their home countries of Rwanda and Burundi in 1993-1994, are roaming eastern Zaire's Kivu region with practically no humanitarian aid. They fled as the rebels took the area around their camps, including Goma, the hub of international aid operations. The rebels' success has opened the prospect that this former colony once called the Belgian Congo might fall apart - or if its Army regroups, engage in an unprecedented regional African war with Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The condition of President Mobutu Sese Seko, recovering in a Swiss clinic, has reportedly worsened, deepening a crisis in Zaire's leadership.

Under great pressure is Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo, a technocrat popular with the West, but not always with his master Mobutu and other powerful politicians. Many analysts believe his political career may now be nearing an end.

"The country is totally out of control with the political vacuum and the situation in the east," said South African Ambassador Jan van Deventer in the capital, Kinshasa. "What worries me is the growing grass-roots feeling that only the military can solve the problem."

Diplomats say that for a region where ethnic strife between Hutus and Tutsis has claimed 150,000 lives in Burundi since 1993 and up to 1 million in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, xenophobia and war talk in Kinshasa does not bode well for repaired relations with the Tutsi-dominated governments of those two neighbors.

Youths in red headbands wrecked Tutsi property and drove many of Kinshasa's once-respected Rwandan citizens into hiding or to flee to neighboring Congo the past few days. An unusually united Parliament on Thursday stoked more nationalist passions by demanding Tutsis' expulsion from the government.

Then on Saturday, Zairean Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Eluki Mongo Aundu made a rare criticism of the government, blaming a lack of resources for the Army's appalling show.

He vowed to attack Rwanda, but with Zaire's armed forces in corrupt disarray, analysts speculated that he could inflict greater damage instead on Mr. Kengo's beleaguered rule. "We regret that the government is moving too slowly and has not given the necessary means," General Eluki said, adding that the government might have acted more quickly against Rwanda had Mobutu been in the country.

Such criticisms are a big change from Mobutu's early years, when he could even dictate to Zaire's 41 million people to wear native dress and give their children African names.

Over the past six years, Mobutu progressively withdrew from government in Kinshasa to a remote northern retreat.

The state has disintegrated to such an extent that all that remains are semiautonomous provinces, some with strong secessionist tendencies. Roads and telephones are nonfunctioning in much of the country. And Mobutu has yet to name an heir.

Now, with a looming humanitarian disaster on the scale of the 1994 aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, when 1.1 million Hutus fled to east Zaire to avoid reprisals for the genocide, the international community fears being as powerless now as it found itself then.

Diplomats say the US, which has withdrawn its cold-war support for Mobutu, France, and former colonial ruler Belgium all now have limited clout here.

While the UN debated what to do, Aldo Ajello, the European Union's special envoy to the Great Lakes region, tried to set up a regional summit in Nairobi tomorrow. But he and other mediators are trying to do what some say is impossible: bring reconciliation to a vengeful nation. Mr. Ajello on Saturday was in Kinshasa trying to convince Kengo he could safely leave Zaire and take part in the proposed summit. But many politicians in Zaire want war, not dialogue with neighboring countries whom they accuse of orchestrating the rebellion of the local Banyamulenge Tutsis.

Ajello dismisses the Zairean fear that Rwanda wants to annex the Kivu area, arguing that all Rwanda wanted to do was get the Hutu refugees, among them soldiers and militiamen who took part in the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis, away from the border.

Few would disagree with Ajello's assertion that the refugees are at the root of the problem. What no one has an answer to is how to get them to return to a country where they will certainly face reprisals.

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