/ 11 July 1997

Rwanda admits to toppling Mobutu

The plot to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko originated not in the Congo but in Rwanda, before the campaign actually began. John Pomfret reports from Kigali, Rwanda

RWANDA’S powerful Defence Minister Paul Kagame has acknowledged for the first time his country’s key role in the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saying the Rwandan government planned and directed the rebellion that toppled Mobutu and that Rwandan troops and officers led the rebel forces.

Rwandan forces participated in the capture of at least four cities – Kinshasa, Lumbumbashi, Kenge and Kisangani, which fell on March 15 in what was considered the key battle of the war, Kagame said.

Rwandan “mid-level commanders” led Congolese rebel forces throughout the rebellion, Kagame said, and Rwanda provided training and arms for those forces even before the campaign to overthrow Mobutu began last October.

Several other African countries, including Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Zambia are also known to have supported the rebel cause. But Kagame’s account suggests that the war, which began in the eastern Congo, was planned primarily by Rwanda, and that the plan to remove Mobutu originated in Kigali.

The 40-year-old major-general, who commanded the 1994 takeover of Rwanda by a rebel army, is also vice-president and Rwanda’s most powerful leader.

“There are not many people who thought that Mobutu was very weak. They thought of Mobutu as a big monster who wouldn’t be defeated. They thought little Rwanda and big Zaire,” Kagame said with a smile. “Only when we started did they look at the map and see the possibilities.”

The Rwandans’ role in the rebellion has been controversial. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who proclaimed himself president of Congo in May, has maintained that his forces were assembled from among Congo’s many ethnic groups. But the large number of ethnic Tutsis in the rebels’ ranks has led Kabila’s critics to claim Congo is being ruled by a Rwandan occupation force.

Kagame, a Tutsi, also responded to allegations that Tutsi officers of the Rwandan army ordered massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees inside Congo.

The refugees fled to Congo, then Zaire, in 1994 after Kagame’s Tutsi-led army seized power in Rwanda and ended the massacre of Tutsis by Hutu troops and militias. Rwandan officers in Congo have said the Tutsis were given a free hand by the Congolese rebels to attack the refugees in exchange for backing the war against Mobutu.

While not denying the possibility of individual atrocities, Kagame accused United Nations officials who have levelled massacre charges against Rwandan army and Congolese rebel forces of trying to equate their behaviour with the genocide that Hutu extremists carried out in Rwanda. “It is my strong belief that the UN people are trying to deflect the blame for failures of their own making on to us.”

Kagame said that months before, he warned the United States that Rwanda would strike against Mobutu’s regime and the refugee camps in eastern Congo. As many as 1,1- million Hutus were housed by late 1996 in the camps.

Hutu militias used the camps as bases from which they launched raids into Rwanda, and Kagame said the Hutus had been buying weapons and preparing a full-scale invasion of Rwanda.

Kagame added that he and other Rwandan officials attempted to persuade the UN and Western countries to demilitarise the refugee camps and separate the Hutu fighters from the real refugees. But, he said, “they were insensitive. We told them clearly: `Either you do something about the camps or you face the consequences’.”

The Rwandan army had already begun training Tutsis from Congo and Rwandan agents started making contact with other Congolese rebel forces. Slowly the organisation that would be known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo began to take shape.

Kagame said most of the guerrillas in the alliance were Congolese, but that key units belonged to the Rwandan army. The battle plan was simple: “dismantle the camps”, “destroy the structure” of the Hutu army and militias based in and around the camps and, finally, topple Mobutu.

Kagame said that “it would have been more suitable” if Congolese rebels had done most of the fighting against Mobutu’s troops, but it also would have been riskier.

“I don’t think they were fully prepared to carry it out alone,” he said. “We did continue to take some role as we thought doing it halfway would be very dangerous.”

l UN Secretary General Kofi Annan this week accepted Congo President Laurent Kabila’s refusal to let a UN human-rights team investigate allegations of Hutu refugee massacres. But Annan said he would send a new team, chosen personally by him, to pursue the inquiry.

His move represents an attempt to obtain the co-operation of Kabila, while assuaging the concern of human-rights groups, who fear that allowing Kabila to veto the composition of the UN team would set a precedent that could harm future atrocity investigations.

At issue is the international demand for investigation of sites in Congo where as many as 200 000 Hutu refugees may have been massacred by forces loyal to Kabila. – The Washington Post