Like a tornado sucking in everything in its path, the battle for eastern Zaire is involving more and more countries, opening a chapter of heightened internationalization of African wars.
A new pattern of cross-border meddling, also present in Sudan's civil war next door, seems to be replacing the old days when colonial powers or superpowers stepped in when they felt their proxies were in trouble.
But while lacking the superpower dimensions of the cold war, when the United States and Soviet Union played out their rivalry in Ethiopia and Angola, this new cycle of neighborly meddling is a dangerous trend for a region destabilized by poverty and growing ethnic strife.
"It is like adding more ingredients to a bubbling pot," says Bill Sass, a military analyst with the Institute of Defense Policy in Johannesburg.
"As soon as a conflict like this happens, it impacts on the countries around it. The conflict in Central Africa is no longer just Rwanda's problem, it's become Zaire's and Uganda's. Basically this is an unstable area, [and] these conflicts become more difficult to resolve as more states get involved."
Some analysts believe France, which recently intervened in the Central African Republic, and the US are playing more than a back-stage role in Sudan and Zaire. But for the most part, the scenario unfolding is of regional crises spinning very much out of any government's control.
In Sudan, it appears that Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia are lending support to black insurgents in the south who have been fighting the northern Islamic regime in Khartoum for 13 years.
As for eastern Zaire, fighting initially began in October when ethnic Tutsis were threatened with expulsion, partly due to ethnic tension exacerbated by the presence of Hutu refugees from Burundi and Rwanda. Some of these refugees took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. The Zairean Tutsis were joined by antigovernment rebels, who are fighting to oust President Mobutu Sese Seko.
There is increasing evidence that Ugandan and Rwandan troops have come to the rebels' aid, and that Mr. Mobutu's Army has enlisted mercenaries from France and Belgium. Earlier this week, Zaire claimed it had been promised troops from Chad, Morocco, and Togo and military equipment from Egypt. The statement, if true, is an echo of the 1970s, when Mobutu could summon Western support to put down provincial rebellions.
Analysts say this new tendency to step into a conflict next door is encouraged by a ready supply of guns and deepening ethnic tensions that know no borders.
The ethnic card is most evident in Central Africa, where artificial borders established during colonial times are unraveling in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zaire, and Tanzania. These political divides are more irrelevant than ever with the huge movements of refugees being pushed back and forth across frontiers.
The cross-border conflicts are also taking the form of tit-for-tat tensions, with countries attacking each other for harboring the others' rebels.
In Sudan, the Islamic regime accuses Ethiopia, Uganda, and Eritrea of helping its rebels. In return, the three blame Sudan for attacks on their soil.
Eastern Zaire presents a similar scenario. Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda have grievances against the Mobutu regime. Tutsi-led Rwanda and Burundi were pleased when the rebels established a buffer zone in eastern Zaire by breaking up Hutu refugee camps that threatened their governments. And certainly Uganda was pleased with the rebel capture of the Zairean city of Bunia, which helped Uganda secure its western flank against its own insurgents.
In the wake of the cold war's end, the biggest manifestation of international involvement in Africa took the form of peacekeeping missions. That has changed for the most part. Except for France, which takes an active interest in Francophone Africa, Western nations have largely disengaged from Africa. And in the latest conflicts, there is largely inaction by international groups such as the Organization of African Unity and the UN.
West African states seem to have been chastened by their unsuccessful experiment in peacekeeping in Liberia. The UN has wound down peace missions in Mozambique, Rwanda, and Somalia and is pulling out of Angola.
In Zaire today, the degree of foreign involvement still needs to be clarified, although it was deemed sufficiently of concern to prompt an alarmed call by the US State Department this week asking all regional actors to stay out of the conflict.
"The US has consistently urged other nations not to become involved in the fighting in eastern Zaire," spokesman Nicholas Burns said Tuesday in an implicit warning to Zaire's neighbors. "We will continue to discourage actively any outside country, any outside group of foreigners or mercenary groups [from involvement]."
However, Zaire's claims of outside help have prompted skepticism, especially after Egypt said it had no defense ties with Zaire, and Togo denied planning to send troops. Moreover, analysts question why Chad would want to send soldiers to another country when it can barely cope with a rebellion at home.
There appears to be little doubt that Uganda and Rwanda are helping Zaire's rebels, although both countries vociferously deny involvement. French-speaking villagers in rebel territory report the presence of armed outsiders who speak Swahili and English, giving credence to claims that the soldiers are from Rwanda and Uganda.
There has been much speculation about how far France is willing to go to counter what it sees as a growing Anglo-Saxon influence in the region and to prop up its longstanding ally, Mobutu.
Washington meanwhile is a firm ally of Uganda, Rwanda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. They are seen as a counterweight to the Islamic rule in Sudan and dictators such as Mobutu. Any military help provided to the four countries would surely trickle down to the rebels in Sudan and Zaire.
Regional leaders trying to resolve the crisis worry the involvement of more countries will make it harder to defuse the conflict. "The whole situation seems to be sliding into chaos," says a senior official from South Africa, which is trying to act as a mediator. "Try as we may, no one seems to be able to do anything about it."