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Rumblings of war in heart of Africa

US and UN send envoys to stop Congo conflict.

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There's an eery familiarity to the military maneuvering in and around Congo, a giant nation in the heart of Africa.

Some observers worry that the region is slipping into a second African "world war" - a repeat of the 1998-2003 conflict that involved troops from six nations and left 3 million dead.

Refugees are now streaming out of eastern Congo. Congolese troops are positioning near the border with longtime rival Rwanda, which is threatening retaliation. Congo's young president, Joseph Kabila, reshuffled his cabinet after an alleged coup attempt and has apparently discussed getting military help from Angola and Tanzania.

Yet there are also signs that this war could be more easily prevented than the last. For one thing, this time the players have more to lose. Rwanda, for instance, gets most of its budget from outside donors and risks losing the money if it goes to war. And outsiders like South Africa want access to Congo's gold, diamond, copper, and other resources - hard to extract amid conflict.

For sure, though, it's a high-stakes game. If by bringing in troops and improving ties with anti-Rwandan militias, Congo's leaders "are creating an ad hoc army" to take on Rwanda, "they could have a real problem on their hands," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. Partly that's because "the Rwandans are the best in the business" of waging war in Africa.

Rwanda is tiny - smaller than the state of Massachusetts. Congo is more than three times the size of Texas. But Rwanda jump-started the 1996 rebellion that ousted Congo's (then Zaire's) longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. It also helped spark the rebellion that started the first big war in 1998. That conflict's rate of killing - including deaths by starvation and illness - was the equivalent of one Sept. 11 every day and a half for five straight years. A peace deal brokered by South Africa in 2003 ended the conflict and set up a power-sharing plan that included Rwanda-backed rebels in a transitional government. Congo aims to have elections by 2005.

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