Carving Up Congo As World Stands By

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

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

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."

It didn't take long, however, for relations between Kabila and Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame to sour. Rwandan Defense Ministry officials openly complained that Kabila's failure to establish control over the remote eastern provinces had played into the hands of Congo-based Hutu rebels seeking to overthrow Rwanda's Tutsi dominated government.

Hutu extremists, formerly massed in refugee camps around Goma, had found sanctuary in the forests around Bukavu and were fomenting a violent rebellion in Rwanda's northwestern provinces of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri.

Origin of revolt

In early July, when Kabila sacked his army chief of staff, James Kabari, a Rwandan Tutsi, it became clear that tensions between the two former allies had escalated to a dangerous point. And two weeks later, when Congo's president ordered the immediate expulsion of all Rwandans troops from Congolese territory, several observers suggested it had been a panicked, last-minute response to a secret plan by Rwandans army leaders to take the matter into their own hand.

Who is mastermind?

The peculiar, blitzkrieg quality of the Banyamulenge sweep across the Kivus has indeed betrayed a level of coordination which, analysts and diplomats say, could have been obtained only with Rwandan involvement.

"The question now is what Rwanda's intentions are," a Kinshasa-based diplomat speculated over the phone.

"At this stage, I think we can safely assume they want the Kivus. The rest is a mystery, including how they will avoid making the same mistake they made in 1996," when they picked Kabila - an obscure warlord who had been waging a private, unsuccessful war against Mobutu - to hold a colossus the size of Western Europe together.

In the flurry of speculations about Rwanda's next move - with the fight for Uvira and for Kisangani, the largest city in eastern Congo already under way - the Kivus constitute the main point of interest.

"Does Rwanda plan to annex the Kivus? I don't know. But I can't see how they would do that," the diplomat said.

"Why is it that nobody is saying anything?," says a long-time Bukavu resident who did not wish to be named. "It's unbelievable!

To the question of what Rwanda's interest in the Kivus might ultimately be, one Nairobi- based observer suggested the 475-mile stretch along Rwanda's western border might provide "an invaluable buffer zone" against Hutu insurgents on the one hand, and precious "living space" on the other.

Population pressure in Rwanda is among the highest in the world and has often been cited as one of reasons behind the genocide of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

"I think we'll find out soon whether the Rwandans plan to go all the way to Kinshasa," the observer said.

"The problem is what they are going to do after that. Kabila didn't work, partly because of his own political ineptitude, but, honestly, it's not an easy job. Congo is huge, and there have always been secessionist tensions there. Who is to say somebody else is going to make it work?"

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