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Africa's Domino Rebellion

As rebels in Congo neared the capital, other nations sparred over how to stop war.

In a scant three weeks, a war in Congo has entangled more and more African nations, creating a crisis of confidence on a continent recently heralding a new era.

Africa's hopes of stability and unity have been riven by Rwanda's and Uganda's backing of a rebel army in Congo. Yesterday, the rebels were poised to take the capital, Kinshasa, and oust President Laurent Kabila.

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At the heart of the conflict is the fact that Congo is too big, too central, too rich in minerals, and too surrounded by countries with rebellions spilling over their borders.

Other Africa nations see the need to end the conflict, but for different reasons and in different ways. South African President Nelson Mandela favors dialogue. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, bent on wielding more power in the region and at home, wants to defend Mr. Kabila with military forces. Angola, fighting its own rebels who use Congo's territory, wants to join in the fight.

The war's roots lie in Rwanda's Hutu-Tutsi conflict of 1994. Then a Hutu massacre of perhaps a million Tutsis was followed by a Tutsi-controlled Rwandan government's retaliation driving Hutus into Congo.

The current Tutsi rebellion supported by Rwanda goes back to President Kabila's failure to control extremist Hutus on Rwanda's border. Rwanda wants to protect itself with some sort of security zone.

Mood on Zambia border

As the week's outside support for Kabila mounted, the mood at this previously sullen post, Kasumbalesa, on the Zambian-Congolese border could not have been better.

"Fourteen countries," said a beaming border official, "All of them say no to invasion. Because if Rwanda invades a country every time it feels like it, then I can invade Zambia tomorrow."

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In the following hours, much to the dismay of Congolese officials, facts caught up with Mr. Mugabe's claim that the 14 countries belonging to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had come to the "unanimous" decision to help Kabila.

President Mandela publicly reprimanded Mugabe for his inflammatory talk and called upon SADC countries to work on a peaceful settlement.

Above the whir of contradictory statements, analysts say one thing is increasingly clear: that countries in this deeply unstable region are taking sides - both on principle and for self-interest.

In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, could thus turn into a battleground for at least seven armies: Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, and Angola's government troops, as well as rebel UNITA troops.

The principle of the inviolability of African borders has been cited as a good enough reason to take up arms against rebels in Congo. But analysts have pointed out that the decision to send in troops and arms at considerable expense will rest largely on how much different countries stand to lose - or gain - from Kabila's ousting.

Having sat on the fence for close to three weeks, Angola has come out in support of Kabila. This may have been the result of talks in which the Angolan government, whose interest is the security of its border, was promised active support against UNITA rebels operating out of Congo.

The UNITA rebels are expected to side with Rwanda, Uganda, and possibly Burundi in exchange for a guarantee of easy living in Congo under the country's new leadership.

Observers say that Zimbabwe's support for Kabila may never progress past Mugabe's irate condemnation of the region's powerbrokers. Zimbabwean soldiers have not been paid for some time, and the country can scarcely afford the cost of a protracted war.

However, Mugabe's need to distract attention from his country's internal problems may well have the opposite effect and lead to heavy Zimbabwean military involvement.

Last year, as Rwanda set out on a seven-month military campaign to overthrow dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, no one spoke of stopping its sweep across the continent.

The current attempt to overthrow Kabila, however, lacks the previous struggle's moral strength. In his 15 months at the head of one of Africa's unruly giants, Kabila has squandered much of his credibility. He concentrated power in the hands of friends and family, obstructed a human rights investigation into mass killings in eastern Congo, and offended most of his former allies by turning a deaf ear to their complaints.

Still, observers say, Kabila remains the president of a sovereign state. Furthermore, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, unlike last year's war against Mobutu, the rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda has little or no popular support among Congolese, most of whom mistrust and dislike Rwandans.

"I think some of the SADC countries believe this is a dangerous precedent," says a Zambian analyst, "You do it once against someone like Mobutu and who will object? But you do it twice, it becomes a pattern."

Rwanda, Uganda choices

On the other side, Uganda and Rwanda are left with little choice but to keep fighting or lose face.

Uganda's need to secure its border against rebel militias operating out of Congo prompted its involvement in last year's war. Little has changed since then. Attacks by rebels have, in fact, grown so bold that a debate is raging in Uganda over whether to arm civilians in the areas commonly targeted by rebels.

According to analysts in this region, Rwanda is in a similar predicament, with extremist Hutu militias operating out of eastern Congo posing a grave threat to the Tutsi minority currently in power.

Kabila's response to Rwanda's involvement, however, has been to arm Hutu rebels. Continued support of Hutu extremists on Congolese soil may then leave Rwanda back where it started.

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