Congo Rebellion Echoes Past - With Crucial Differences

It starts again near Rwanda border. But this time public seems not to favor the rebels.

The 10-day-old rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo has a familiar ring about it. The same events that forced the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power last year and installed Laurent Kabila seem to be playing themselves out again:

* Evidence mounts that Rwanda's army is involved, something Rwandan officials deny.

* Towns in the east along the border with Rwanda were the first to be seized by rebels.

* The Tutsi-led revolt has sparked an intense backlash against Tutsis in government-held territory.

Yet, beyond the similarities, key differences make this conflict more complicated and potentially more violent, and its eventual outcome more unpredictable.

"It's completely different," says cigarette vendor Bongombe Yenga, as heads nod in agreement in the small crowd around his stand in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. "When Kabila launched his rebellion, everybody here was already disappointed with Mobutu and wanted no more of him. But now people are behind the military, and we want the rebels to leave."

The new nationalism is striking, since there had been widespread disappointment with President Kabila's first 14 months in power. Many consider his government nearly as corrupt as Mr. Mobutu's, and his policies more dictatorial than democratic.

Angola's crucial role

Most analysts agree the key player could be Angola, which stretches along Congo's southwestern border. President Jos Eduardo dos Santos is said to be angry with Kabila for continuing to allow Jonas Savimbi's rebel UNITA soldiers to transport diamonds through Congolese territory. But Mr. Savimbi is apparently disappointed that Kabila has cracked down on his food and fuel smuggling. The involvement of either Angolan side in the Congo conflict could prove decisive, at least in the short term.

While Kabila's promise of change made his alliance with Rwanda's Tutsi-led army palatable two years ago, few see any justification for the current audacious Tutsi-led aggression.

The same sentiment apparently holds in the Congolese Army. Instead of fleeing without a fight as it did in town after town last year, soldiers are reportedly putting up resistance to the rebels and have even regained some lost territory.

But loyalty may not be enough to overcome the severe handicap of the loss of the Army's command structure. When Kabila ordered the expulsion of all Rwandan soldiers a week before the rebellion, he lost hundreds of his top officers, the very people who had led his own successful rebellion - and "the people with all the information," as one Western diplomat puts it.

Those officers are now - according to numerous diplomatic and eyewitness accounts - organizing the current revolt, and this may explain its stunning proficiency. While Kabila took seven months to reach the capital, this time rebels have placed Kinshasa in their sights within just a week by hijacking a passenger plane and leapfrogging from the east to take strategic towns in the west.

They first captured a military base at Kitona, where military sources say a Rwandan commander still held the key to a major weapons depot. Diplomats say rebels have also blocked Congo's only port on the Atlantic coast and are advancing toward a hydroelectric facility that supplies electricity for the entire country.

Meanwhile, in the kind of military musical chairs this rebellion has unleashed, strange alliances appear in the making. Perhaps the most bizarre puts Rwanda's Army together with the old "Mobutu-ists" it swept out of the country into exile last year.

Mobutu's last information minister took to Belgian television this week to declare that he and key Mobutu military strategists were working with the rebels on an economic and political program for Congo. The alliance may include an estimated 5,000 former Mobutu soldiers, now cooling their heels across the river from Kinshasa in the neighboring Congo Republic.

Lasting solution is elusive

Rwanda, in turn, has accused Kabila of training some 10,000 Rwandan Hutu militants based in Congo. The Rwandan government is fighting Hutu rebel groups on its soil who have havens in Congo. These Hutus put up the most resistance last year to Kabila's advance across Congo, formerly known as Zaire. But they are Kabila's natural ally in fighting Rwanda's Tutsi-led army.

In the long term, few see the way ahead to a lasting solution to the crisis. A Tutsi-led government is widely considered unacceptable and provocative. Some analysts say a victory for Kabila would reinforce his authoritarian tendencies and increase public dissatisfaction with him once the military threat passed. However this rebellion ends, many Congolese worry they will find themselves waiting for the next one.

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