Congo Contenders Bargain on the Price of Peace

Nation's future may depend on peace talks this week between Kabila and Rwanda.

Last year it took Rwandan President Paul Kagame two months to admit it - that Rwandan troops had spearheaded the assault on Congo's capital, Kinshasa, toppling longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and putting Laurent Kabila in power.

This year Mr. Kagame is not likely to make any such confession.

Tiny Rwanda has strenuously denied its involvement in the anti-Kabila rebellion in neighboring Congo, and will probably continue to do so publicly.

But, as talks to end the five-week conflict resume in Zimbabwe, observers say that Rwanda will privately have to acknowledge the presence of its troops halfway across the continent in western Congo - and negotiate their way out after becoming trapped by pro-Kabila forces.

This would give President Kabila a bargaining chip he is unlikely to trade in cheaply.

The situation on the ground has changed little since Angola's powerful intervention on the side of Kabila last month.

What was supposed to be a lightning attack on Kinshasa by the Rwandan-backed rebels failed some 20 miles from its objective after Zimbabwean troops sealed off the capital and Angolan artillery sent the rebels fleeing. Now pro-Kabila forces control western Congo, while the rebels - ethnic Tutsis backed by both Rwanda and Uganda - control the east.

Safe passage for rebels?

Analysts predict that the safe passage of rebel troops from west to east will top the agenda in the talks at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe - and may emerge as a precondition to further negotiations.

"Rwanda is determined to prevent the slaughter of some of its most seasoned and well-trained forces in the west," says a longtime observer of the region. "These are many of the same men who have had victory after victory in East Africa, [backing leaders] from [Yoweri] Museveni in Kampala, to Kagame in Kigali, to Kabila in Kinshasa.

"Failing to take the capital [Kinshasa] with a massive airlift is bad enough. But the suggestion that the core of that front-line force is going to be snuffed out, smashed between the Zimbabweans and Angolans - that's unacceptable."

Origin of conflict

The current cycle of events in eastern and central Africa is often traced back to the rise of President Museveni in Uganda 12 years ago. Fighting in the bush alongside Mr. Museveni were many exiled Rwandan Tutsis, who in 1990 launched an invasion of Hutu-controlled Rwanda out of bases in Uganda.

Their victory in mid-1994 stopped the genocide of more than 500,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus. Three years later Rwanda and Uganda spearheaded a military campaign against the late dictator Mobutu in what was then called Zaire and delivered Kabila to power in the renamed Congo.

Now, saved by the intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe, Kabila faces his onetime allies in negotiations that will determine the future of this region for some time to come.

President Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda is among the participants. So is Kabila's present supporter, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Two rebel leaders - former UNESCO official Arthur Z'Ahidi Ngoma and Kabila's former foreign minister, Bizima Karaha - were scheduled to attend talks for the first time since the start of the rebellion in Congo.

Critics say the belatedness of their summons to the talks provides a measure of their minor significance in a conflict said to have been largely engineered by Rwanda.

Beyond assurances of safe passage for its entrapped troops, Rwanda will look for a settlement over the eastern Congo provinces of North and South Kivu, which Rwanda needs as a security zone against Hutu rebels operating out of bases in eastern Congo. Analysts believe that, at this stage, Rwanda could not afford to pull out of the Kivus even if it wanted to.

The recent rebellion is interpreted by many Congolese as another attempt to establish a Rwandan sphere of influence in the region.

Thus the rebellion has only helped to cement an alliance between Hutu militias hiding in the hills of eastern Congo and assorted local rebel movements enraged by Rwanda's 16-month-old de facto control of the Kivus.

"The damage has been done," says a Congolese pilot whose plane was hijacked at the beginning of the rebellion in Goma to provide transport for thousands of rebel troops heading west. Referring to local hatred of Rwanda, he says: "It's worse now than it was before."

Observers say that Kabila will initially demand a total surrender by the rebels. But such a demand is unlikely to move negotiations forward. And should Kabila insist on a complete rebel retreat in the east, the war will probably drag on, with rebels safely entrenched in Kisangani, eastern Congo's largest city, and in control of a towns along the Rwandan border.

Focus on Angola

At first a partial withdrawal may be successfully negotiated. Kalmi, a rebel-controlled town in the province of Katanga, only 400 miles away from Kabila's southern stronghold of Lubumbashi, would probably be the first to go.

As the negotiations progress, attention will remain keenly focused on Angola, Africa's military giant, with much second-guessing as to what it hopes to extract from the conflict.

"The question now is whether Angola is for or against a divided Congo," says the longtime observer mentioned earlier.

"Angola has only one interest, and it's not Congo or Rwanda. It's UNITA. If a divided Congo leaves UNITA out in the cold, Angola won't mind." UNITA rebels have been waging a long war against the Angolan government of President Jos Eduardo dos Santos.

According to diplomats and experts in the region, Angola's massive intervention in western Congo has the single objective of preventing UNITA rebels from reestablishing their rear bases just across the border in Congo.

It is now in Rwanda's interest to persuade Angolan leaders that a divided Congo would not benefit UNITA.

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