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Zaire, Rwanda edge closer to war

October 30, 1996
Web posted at: 12:15 p.m. EST (1715 GMT)

In this story:

(CNN) -- Zaire and Rwanda moved closer to war on Wednesday after two days of trading artillery fire across their border and a Rwandan military operation into Zaire. "There is every indication that we are going in that direction," Rwandan Vice President Paul Kagame told a news conference in the capital Kigali.

Pope John Paul II said he was following the plight of the refugees in the region with "unspeakable sorrow" and called on the world to step up its help. French President Jacques Chirac called for an international conference on the mounting tensions between the two countries.

Kagame said Rwanda would be forced to respond if faced with what he termed Zairean aggression. "If Zaire brings the war to us we shall fight Zaire ... even though we seek no war with Zaire," said Kagame, who is also Rwanda's defense minister.

'Forced to retaliate'

Later, Rwandan Lt. Col. Firmin Kagame told reporters in the border town of Cyangugu he sent "a good-sized" force of troops into Zaire after nightfall on Tuesday in retaliation for Zairean firing into Rwanda.

"After they hit our territory and injured and killed our people and hit civilians we were forced to retaliate," the commander said.

Aid workers in Goma said a Zairean military base in Rumamgabo, 35 kilometers (20 miles) to the north, was hit with mortars and that fighting seemed to be moving towards Katale and Kahindo camps housing more than 300,000 refugees.

History of conflict

Zaire, a large country at the heart of Africa formerly known as the Belgian Congo, has long been in chaos, but the latest crisis in its eastern region is seen as potentially the most far-reaching in its 36-year history as an independent state.

President Mobutu Sese Seko, whose strongarm tactics have helped to keep his country together, is sick in a Swiss clinic, recovering from cancer surgery. He has not been in Zaire for more than two months.

Risk of starvation

Deadly rivalry between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis, which resulted in nearly one million dead in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, has spilled into Zaire, which is host to 1.1 million Rwandan refugees. Many will soon run the risk of starvation because the border between Rwanda and Zaire is closed and food aid cannot come in, aid workers say.

About half a million of the refugees from the fighting inside Zaire are now out of contact with U.N. agencies. "We don't even know whether they have access to water," said U.N. refugee agency spokesman Panos Moumtzis from the eastern Zairean city of Goma.

At Mugunga camp near Goma, 400,000 refugees have crowded into the huge, densely packed camp.

Pope's plea

"I sincerely hope the international community will do all in its power to bring help effectively to the catastrophe which is raging," the pope told pilgrims in St. Peter's Square.

"With unspeakable sorrow, I am following events in north-eastern Zaire, where ferocious fighting and looting has forced thousands of Rwandan and Burundian refugees, especially the elderly, women and children, into an aimless flight."

Rebels refuse to leave

The fighting pits Zairean army troops against Tutsi rebels. Zaire said the rebels are receiving support from Tutsi-led Rwanda, but Rwanda has denied it.

Zaire has ordered the Banyamulenge fighters, as the Tutsi rebels are known, to leave the eastern land they have occupied for at least 200 years. The Tutsis have refused, and last month began fighting back.

The Rwandan refugees in Zaire are members of the Hutu faction, which perpetrated the 1994 genocide of a half-million Tutsis. The refugees have resisted appeals from the United Nations, regularly broadcast to them over loudspeakers, to return to Rwanda. They say they fear for their lives if they return.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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