Rebels Take Key Town, May Win New Ally in Central Africa

Congo's insurgents on the offensive; if Angola switches to their side, they'll oust Kabila.

An irate President Robert Mugabe went on state television in Zimbabwe Wednesday night. Just back from a visit to Congo, he gave viewers an African version of an "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" speech.

Rwanda and Uganda, he shouted, were "liars and aggressors." "The [Congo] should have never allowed itself to be subject to the wiles and guile of little Rwanda," Mr. Mugabe said. "It is absolute stupidity."

It is no coincidence that earlier this week rebels fighting to oust Congo President Laurent Desir Kabila had captured the strategic town of Kindu, long considered the gateway to rebel-controlled territory in the east. The fall of Kindu to these insurgents constitutes a serious setback for Congo's government forces, who had hoped to use the town's airport to mount a counteroffensive.

Now the tables have turned: Not only have President Kabila's forces lost a precious opportunity to regain control of parts of the east, they have exposed themselves to rebel advances.

The 2-1/2-month-old rebellion in sub-Saharan Africa's largest country aims to oust Kabila, who himself wrested control of the country by force in 1996. Many nearby countries have taken sides in the conflict to protect their own interests. Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad have backed Kabila; Rwanda and Uganda have supported the rebels.

The town of Kindu, in east-central Congo, is roughly 600 miles north of Lubumbashi, Kabila's southern stronghold and the second-largest city in Congo. Because Kindu has an airport, a rarity in the interior of Congo, it now will likely serve as a launch pad for an offensive by the rebels to the south and west, which remain under government control.

Zimbabwe's President Mugabe has raised the possibility of a counterattack against the rebels in eastern Congo by troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia, with the support of Chad.

Meanwhile, rebel commander Jean Pierre Ondekane was in Washington lobbying for American support. He vowed to take Congo's capital, Kinshasa, "in three months."

Silence from Angola following the capture of Kindu has observers speculating about it switching sides. Angola's intervention in late August saved Kabila's government from a rebel advance on Kinshasa. Its defection to the side of Rwanda and Uganda would topple Kabila within just a few hours, observers agree.

RWANDA and Uganda long denied military involvement in neighboring Congo, but now openly support the rebels. They have been wooing President Jos Eduardo dos Santos of Angola. They are denying evidence that points to their alliance with the Angolan rebel group UNITA. Angola is believed to have come in forcefully on the side of Kabila to prevent UNITA rebels from reestablishing rear bases in neighboring Congo. Sources close to the fighting suggested last week that evidence of UNITA's involvement was fabricated by Zimbabwe to bring Angola, whose army is the largest in Africa, into the war on the side of Kabila.

Rwanda has yet to respond to reports that Rwandan soldiers are in Kindu. But journalists flown there by the rebels hours after the fall of the town ran into a group of 200 seasoned Rwandan fighters, confirming suspicions that Rwanda has been behind the rebellion in Congo.

Eastern Congo has long served as a base for Hutu extremists fighting to overthrow the Tutsi-dominated government in neighboring Rwanda. Control over the eastern Congo provinces of North and South Kivu would give Rwanda a security zone in which to counterattack Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe.

In 1994, extremist Hutu soldiers and militia in Rwanda slaughtered at least half a million people, most of them minority Tutsis, in a government-sponsored genocide. Tutsi rebels eventually ousted the Hutu government and ended the massacre. But Hutu fighters, both former Rwandan soldiers and militiamen, fled into eastern Congo along with thousands of refugees and still maintain bases there.

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