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War in Congo Shakes Kabila’s Empire

May 11, 1999

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) _ In most cities, the huge concrete flowerpots that line Kinshasa’s broad main boulevard would be for decoration. Here, they are to keep rebels from landing a plane downtown and overthrowing the president.

Fearing a repeat of a landing Rwandan troops made last August in nearby Kitona, President Laurent Kabila had the planters set up all along June 30th Avenue _ named for Congo’s independence day in 1960 from Belgium.

Kabila is under siege, two years after toppling longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko with promises of reform and democracy.

A coalition of rebels is gaining steam, Kabila’s foreign allies are tiring, and public support is vanishing amid skyrocketing food prices and unpaid salaries.

``The only thing that keeps Kabila in power is the nationalism, and the fear of Rwandans,″ said Claude Kibumbu, a Congolese journalist in Kinshasa who hid for two months at the French ambassador’s house after authorities closed down his newspaper, Le Soft. ``Kabila has no support, but the Rwandans have even less. We’re living in a vacuum.″

Last month, Kabila caved to international pressure and agreed to meet with rebel leaders. But the rebels refused to meet him as long as Kabila’s future as president wasn’t open to discussion.

Rwandans initially helped Kabila topple Mobutu in 1997, believing he would help them catch Hutu soldiers responsible for the 1994 genocide in their country and stabilize their border. But he soon became wary of the Rwandans’ influence in his government, the army and Congo’s lucrative mining industry, and pushed them out.

Now, Kabila has recruited thousands of Hutu militiamen and scattered them all over Congo, according to the Rwandan government, the United Nations and human rights groups.

In August, ethnic Tutsis, disaffected Congolese soldiers and opposition politicians formed an anti-Kabila coalition and took up arms. The alliance is backed by troops from Rwanda and Uganda.

Ten months later, signs that Kabila’s power is dwindling are everywhere.

Among those leading the rebellion are Kabila’s former foreign affairs minister Bizima Karaha, former political adviser Deogratias Bugera, and former top aide Moise Nyarugabo.

Kabila’s main ally, Zimbabwe, has found it increasingly difficult to keep fighting in southern Congo after losing both lives and heavy equipment, including planes, helicopters and scores of tanks.

The rebels, meanwhile, have massed outside diamond and mineral centers in southern Congo, threatening the main source of income Kabila uses to pay Zimbabwe.

Chad, which sent troops to help Kabila in August, pulled them out last week, saying the conflict has been resolved. Only 250 Zimbabweans now guard Kinshasa’s N’djili Airport.

Zimbabwean officers in Kinshasa, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complain of poor coordination with their Congolese counterparts, who haven’t been paid in five months and appear more interested in finding ways to evacuate their families.

In addition, Kabila’s popularity in Kinshasa is disappearing rapidly. The city’s 6 million residents feel he has failed to deliver on his promises.

Last month, residents of the sprawling Masina slum, who had once volunteered to defend Kinshasa from the rebels, lashed out for the first time, stoning Kabila’s motorcade and pointing to their empty bellies.

The inflation rate has jumped from 14 percent to 200 percent a month under Kabila, and the government has banned black market currency trading. Many foreign businesspeople, forced to buy overvalued Congolese francs, have left the country.

``Whoever tells you he is making money in Kinshasa, is either a liar or a thief,″ said Julie Lema, who runs a charter plane company in Kinshasa.

Feeling his clock ticking, Kabila has turning inward.

He has surrounded himself with confidants from his home province of Katanga, a mineral-rich region in the south, and placed relatives at the head of the army, government ministries and security agencies.

And after imprisoning several thousand soldiers on charges of looting and desertion, Kabila had no choice but to rely on 30,000 Katanga tribesmen for the war effort.

Fed-up government and intelligence officials say Kabila is still looking for support elsewhere, and has asked Libyan, Iraqi and Chinese specialists to help him.

``I’ve grown up in Kinshasa. But I’ve never been through a more difficult period,″ Lema said. ``The Congolese are peaceful people, but there’s a limit.″

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