TOPICS > Politics

Background: Conflict in Congo

October 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLES KRAUSE: It was just 18 months ago that Laurent Kabila and his rebel army swept to victory, defeating the forces of the Congo’s corrupt and brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. In Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, the rebel soldiers were greeted with jubilation. After 32 years in power, Mobutu was finally forced into exile, and for the first time in memory, there was real hope for a new beginning. But today, Africa’s third largest country is once again torn by political violence. And this time, what was essentially a civil war threatens to become a far more dangerous regional conflict — drawing in countries on all sides. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia have formally announced their support for Kabila, and are believed to have sent troops and arms to support his beleaguered government. On the other side, Rwanda — and reportedly Uganda and Burundi — are backing a new rebel army, which calls itself the Congolese Movement for Democracy. In August, the rebels — many of them once loyal to Kabila — seized control of several Congolese towns near the Rwandan border, and their leaders vowed that Kabila would soon be gone.

REBEL LEADER : We are determined to fight, we are determined to win, and control the city of Kinshasa.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Within just a few weeks, by the end of August, the rebels had reached their goal. Kinshasa, a city of more than 5 million people, became a virtual ghost town when it appeared that the capital and the government were about to fall.

But then on August 25th, Kabila made a dramatic re-entry. And once in Kinshasa, he rallied his troops, many of them reportedly sent by his allies in neighboring countries. Kabila’s troops took no prisoners. The fighting was brutal, and eventually the rebels were forced to withdraw from Kinshasa, at least temporarily. In July, he accused the Tutsis and the Rwandans of interfering in the Congo and ordered them out of the country. For their part, the Rwandans accused Kabila of forming an alliance with the Hutus, their hated rivals who’ve been accused of slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis in 1994. The Hutus were eventually defeated, and many of them still live in U.N. refugee camps inside the Congo near the Rwandan border. Earlier this year, President Clinton was in Africa — where during a brief stop to Rwanda, he apologized for not doing more to stop the slaughter four years ago.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name – genocide.

CHARLES KRAUSE: During the trip, the President also met with Kabila and a number of other African leaders, expressing his conviction that Africa is finally on the road to peace and democracy. But despite mediation efforts by South African President Nelson Mandela and others, the situation in the Congo has continued to deteriorate. And now, fearing a power vacuum, its neighbors have been drawn into a conflict that appears increasingly dangerous.