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Rebels in Zaire Rapidly Advance As Army Flees

Hidden war is carving up Zaire, sub-Saharan Africa's largest and potentially richest country.

But the graft-ridden Army of the ruling Mobutu regime has hardly fired a shot to stop the rapid advance of mostly Tutsi rebels in the east.

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Instead, the soldiers have turned on their own citizens, looting and raping as they retreat ever farther, witnesses report. Meanwhile, the West, which helped quell past rebellions in Zaire when it was a cold-war partner, is standing aside.

Zaire's citizens are getting fed up as the six-week-old war rages unchecked. "Go to Goma!" shouted an old man selling used car parts to a young soldier in smart green fatigues strolling down the capital's streets earlier this week. "What are you doing here when you should be out fighting?" The city of Goma is the rebel's stronghold.

The fact that unengaged recruits still roam Kinshasa is just one sign of how Zaire has utterly failed to confront expanding civil strife. During the past week, a rebel group calling itself the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire has taken over at least three more towns - Bunia, Beni, and Kamituga - stretching its territory to include Zaire's border with northern Burundi, all of Rwanda, and much of Uganda. The rebels, who are trying to establish a regional government in Kivu Province, also claim to have captured the towns of Walikale and Kindu and to have surrounded the port city Kisangani. The reports could not be confirmed, and Zaire's government has said it's still in control of Kisangani.

The rebellion, which began as a protest by Zairean-born Tutsis, has snowballed into a drive by a multiethnic coalition to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko. In the process they have forced the long-desired repatriation of Rwandan Hutu refugees from eastern Zaire and scattered the former Rwandan Hutu Army, bolstering suspicion that the rebellion is backed by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government.

Despite weeks of official statements that a counterattack is being "quietly prepared," there is no evidence of a mounting offensive and little confidence that Zaire's ill-equipped and corrupt Army is capable of getting back the land it has lost.

"There is no front line," says a frustrated colonel in Zaire's military, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I can't tell you of soldiers in any given town who are organizing an attack."

Instead, missionaries and local residents fleeing the town of Beni earlier this week described a now-familiar pattern: Long-unpaid and unruly soldiers retreated with barely a shot fired on advancing rebels, pillaging and raping as they went.

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"It is not an Army that is trained to defend territory," says Mike Katambwa, political editor of UMOJA, an opposition newspaper in the capital, Kinshasa. "It is an Army trained to terrorize civilians and to defend the regime here."

During the past three decades of Mr. Mobutu's rule, Zaire's Army has performed those two tasks with vigor. To ensure loyalty, Mr. Katambwa says generals have been allowed to divert money budgeted for the Army into personal accounts.

Guaranteed wealth, military leaders have obediently kept both opposition party members and activist civilians in check, making questionable arrests and openly firing into crowds of protesters.

Military analysts say the same personal privileges and abuse of power that supported Mobutu's regime now threaten to aid the country's unravelling. They say Zairean troops have been unable to defend themselves against the rebels in part because commanders long ago sold their own regiments' arms to guerrilla groups in other countries, pocketing the profits.

Such mercenary motives apparently persist. The colonel says when the rebellion erupted, a group of generals was given millions of dollars and sent to the Middle East to buy the military a plane, which it sorely needs. According to the colonel, the generals have yet to return.

Adding to well-founded public cynicism, the government in Kinshasa is now directing everyone - from customs officers to the local gas company - to hike their fees in the name of mandatory contributions to the war effort.

"It's a joke," says Guillaume N'Gefa, head of the Zairean Association for the Defense of Human Rights, who, like many, doubts the money will go anywhere but in the private bank accounts of government officials.

The disarray has given the rebels nearly free reign to expand their hold, and already they are calculating their own means of financing. Their latest conquest includes a gold mine - albeit one stripped by retreating Zairean soldiers, diplomats say.

One rebel commander this week said his group plans to open new areas to mining in rebel-held territory, and will allow license-holders to continue operating, provided they pay taxes to the rebel alliance.

Still, few diplomats or other analysts believe the small group of rebels will advance far beyond their current mountainous strip of border land.

Yet they also doubt Zaire's military is capable of retaking the territory. In the past, when Mobutu was considered an anticommunist ally, France, the US, and Belgium sent troops to Zaire to put down other rebellions. Now many Zaireans accusingly ask why the same isn't happening.

"They haven't figured out the cold war is over," says one Western diplomat. "They still think that if they attack you, you'll rush forward to give them what they want."

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