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Rwanda Needs - and Will Get? - a Buffer Zone

'Look at what Israel did with south Lebanon,' an analyst in Nairobi said last week, commenting on Rwanda and Congo.

It was a typical Saturday afternoon in this former lakeside resort on Lake Kivu. Soldiers waited in the back of a truck, legs dangling lazily over the side, while the occasional civilian pushed a bicycle along carefully to avoid eye contact. Uniformed officers sat around the Palm Beach Hotel while a body washed up on shore.

At least 20,000 - possibly as many as 50,000 - people have died in this region since a Hutu rebellion began three years ago against the Tutsi minority who hold power in Rwanda.

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Less than 100 yards from this scene of constant violence lies Congo, whose vast impenetrable forests - and a population easily cowed into providing food, cattle for slaughter, and occasionally, shelter - make an ideal region for the Hutu rebels waging a hit-and-run war against the Rwandan government. It's the aftermath of Rwanda's turmoil beginning with the 1994 Hutu massacre of Tutsis. When Tutsis took power, Hutu leaders fled to Congo, then called Zaire.

"We cannot go on like this," said an official in Rwanda's Defense Ministry when interviewed in January. "The Congolese government has promised to do something. But nothing has been done. We cannot go on like this. We'd have to be crazy or suicidal or both."

As a Rwandan-backed rebellion in neighboring Congo enters its second phase - spreading from one end of the vast Central African country to the other - questions about the legitimacy of Rwanda's methods lead to the larger issue of border security and to a government's right to protect itself by sealing off its territory.

"Look at what Israel did with south Lebanon," an analyst in Nairobi said last week. "Without that no man's land between the countries, the Israelis would be in more trouble than they already are."

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and set up a heavily militarized buffer zone to prevent shelling of northern Israel by anti-Israeli forces.

By attempting to shape events in neighboring Congo for the second time in two years, say observers, Rwanda may be doing the only thing realistically left for it to do: carve a 475-mile security zone out of two eastern Congo provinces (North and South Kivu) - essentially replicating Israel's survival strategy.

"The thing very few people understand about Rwanda is that, if this government loses control, it's not just going to be a political death, it's going to be physical annihilation all over again," a Western diplomat in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, speculates. "These are Tutsis surrounded by a largely hostile Hutu population. It's not politics we are talking about. It's human lives."

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The rebellion currently under way in Congo bears great similarities to the one that toppled long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko 15 months ago. The rebel force vowing to overthrow Congo's new leader, Laurent Kabila, is believed to be largely composed of Banyamulenge, or Tutsis of Rwandan origin, whose insurrection against Mobutu provided impetus for a larger war backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, and also by Angola, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

The government of Rwanda has denied involvement, but evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. At the hospital in Goma, directly across the border in Congo, many of the wounded were Rwandan soldiers. Sources at the hospital said they had been flown in from Kitona, more than a thousand miles to the west where the rebel army is reported to have taken over the Congo River port of Muanda and the strategic town of Boma on the road to Kinshasa.

There is also evidence to suggest the Banyamulenge and the Rwandans are not alone in this.

The rebel commander Jean Pierre Ondekane is from Equateur, home province of the late Mobutu. His 15,000-man strong 10th brigade has traditionally been the largest and best equipped in the Congolese army.

"We are not Banyamulenge or Rwandans," General Ondekane said in Goma. "We are all Congolese. We fought on Kabila's side and we got nothing." He said Kabila favors military officers from his home province.

The question now is whether the Rwanda-backed rebellion will succeed as it did two years ago when it put Kabila in power.

Kabila has been playing the nationalist card to his advantage in the capital. Anti-Tutsi sentiment has risen to high pitch, with both Rwanda and Congolese Tutsi reportedly being chased down and killed. Thousands of youths are being drafted into the Army to fight "the Rwandan invasion."

The current rebellion has taken the form of a two-prong attack on Kinshasa, with rebel troops sent to the west to fight the Congo Army. "The rebels have their backs to the ocean," an expert in region said. "If they don't win in the west, they'll be slaughtered."

If the rebels lose in the west, fighting will most likely shift back to the east. Observers believe a battle for the Kivu provinces would place government troops at a great disadvantage because of the forested terrain. "The Rwandans will get their security zone at last," said the diplomat. "They will have fought for it like the Israelis, and, like the Israelis, they will probably get to keep it."

But Rwandans' control of the Kivus would generate problems. Local people bitterly resent their presence, and many incidents of armed conflict occurred in the past year. A Rwanda-controlled zone in Congo, said the diplomat, "would be like Rwanda: a tiny minority holding power over an unhappy majority with all the problems that implies."

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