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Zaire rebels claim to capture another town in eastern region

March 13, 1997

GOMA, Zaire (AP) _ Rebels trying to topple the government said today they captured another town in eastern Zaire, while thousands of refugees trying to escape the insurgents made desperate attempts to cross the Zaire River.

Rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila took Kongolo, about 410 miles southeast of the strategic river port of Kisangani, on Wednesday, rebel spokesman Raphael Ghenda said.

The rebels took Moba, a port on Lake Tanganyika, 225 miles southeast of Kongolo, a day earlier.

``Our forces make progress every day,″ Ghenda said.

The rebels have captured much of eastern Zaire the past five months.

But there was no news of the situation in Kisangani itself. Rebels claim to control access on three sides to the Zaire River city, and have been saying for more than a week that Kisangani would fall ``soon.″

The Zairian government disputes those claims.

The U.N. World Food Program was attempting to fly 60 tons of food into Kisangani today, spokeswoman Michele Quintaglie said in Nairobi, Kenya.

She said the plane would land at a smaller airport in town because the main airport north of the city is ``heavily militarized″ and there could be problems with military checkpoints.

Croatian and Bosnian Serb mercenaries, who appear in charge at the airport where the Zairian army has its regional headquarters, have said the perimeters are mined.

Quintaglie said the food is intended for an estimated 70,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees who have straggled into a makeshift camp at Ubundu, 60 miles south of Kisangani.

Convinced that the rebels who are out to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko are also after them, tens of thousands of refugees were trying to cross the Zaire River at Ubundu. There is no bridge.

Some have ventured across on precarious bamboo rafts built by fishermen. Others pleaded with relief workers Wednesday to ferry them across.

``We’ve got to cross that river, or it will be too late,″ said Samuel Uwimana, a Rwandan Hutu who fled his homeland in 1994. ``It’s not safe here.″

No one knows for certain how many Rwandan refugees are still in Zaire. An estimated two-thirds of the 1.2 million who originally fled in 1994 returned home late last year.

The refugees left Rwanda to escape retribution for the Hutu government-orchestrated slaughter of a half-million minority Tutsis. Many of the refugees are members of the former Rwandan Hutu army and militia implicated in the slaughter. They have been fleeing westward ahead of the rebels since January.

Most of the refugees arriving at Ubundu were among the estimated 170,000 who initially sought shelter at the Tingi-Tingi camp, 60 miles to the southeast. They abandoned the camp two weeks ago as the rebels advanced.

About 1,000 refugees, most suffering from malaria and dysentery, remain at Tingi-Tingi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said today.

Craig Sanders, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Goma, said the Red Cross flew to Tingi-Tingi on Wednesday and had reports that as many as 25 refugees had died in three days.

Update hourly