Advancing Zairian rebels said Tuesday they had surrounded the country’s main port on the Zaire River and captured three other major cities in eastern Zaire.
“We will liberate our people very soon,” said Jean Kabongo, a senior member of the rebel alliance whose battles have displaced 1 million people in eastern Zaire.
Kabongo claimed his forces had captured Bunia and Walikale in northeastern Zaire and Kindu in southeastern Zaire. The victories over Zaire’s demoralized, disorganized military would leave only Kisangani, Zaire’s fifth-largest city and the main port on the Zaire River, under government control in eastern Zaire.
Rebel forces now surround Kisangani as well, Kabongo said. “We are on the outskirts and we control access to the city,” he said. “We are ready to begin the battle for Kisangani soon.”
None of Kabongo’s claims could be independently confirmed.
The fall of Kisangani would be a dramatic loss to the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko. Deep in the interior of the country, it is an important port and trade link on the Zaire river - known as Stanleyville during Belgian colonial days when the river was called the Congo.
The rebels are demanding the ouster of Mobutu, whose regime they see as corrupt and exploitative.
Two aid groups and the U.N. children’s agency pulled their staff out of Kisangani on Tuesday and sent them 770 miles west to the capital of Kinshasa because of the deteriorating security. Zaire flew military reinforcements to the city, a U.N. official said.
Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo angrily accused neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda of backing the rebels.
“Zaire intends to reconquer its territory, whatever the cost,” he said Tuesday at a summit of Central African leaders in Brazzaville, Congo.
Kabongo said rebel troops of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation had taken control of Walikale and Bunia, the two other major cities in northeastern Zaire, late Monday, and that his troops secured the areas Tuesday.
Bunia, near the border with Uganda, is 250 miles north of Goma, the main refugee crossing point into Rwanda. Walikale is 90 miles northwest of Goma.
If the rebels have succeeded in driving as far north as Bunia, they would control a 340-mile-long northsouth strip along Zaire’s borders with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, and a wedge of territory 300 miles wide.
An employee of the aid group Doctors Without Borders described the situation in the region as very volatile and said the group had been denied permission to leave Kisangani or fly over the area.
The worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday, said the group’s plane was shot at Monday.
A large number of Zairian troops and their Rwandan Hutu allies were believed to be in Bunia and Walikale.
Last month, the fighting drove 1 million Rwandan and Burundian refugees from U.N. camps in eastern Zaire. Of those, more than 600,000 Rwandan refugees chose to return home.
International efforts to aid the refugees are being led by Canada from a base at Uganda’s main civilian airport.
“The fighting (in Zaire) is very, very fluid. It’s shifting very quickly,” said Canadian Lt. Gen. Maurice Baril, who is organizing the aid effort.
“There are a lot of boy soldiers in there. But when you face them, they always have the same size gun. They fire the same bullets,” Baril said Tuesday.
Baril toured part of rebel-held territory last week and met with rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila, despite Zaire’s strong objections.