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Republic of Congo government retains palace, airport in fighting

October 12, 1997
Web posted at: 1:15 p.m. EDT (1715 GMT)

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (CNN) -- Congolese president Pascal Lissouba returned from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire, on Saturday to prove that his forces control the presidential palace and the airport in Brazzaville, despite rebel claims to the contrary.

"I am home, you have seen that I am home," he told visitors to the palace. "Regarding radio and television, all things are in hands of our army. It means that it is always, and as a rule of our people."

But as he appeared before the media, he also allowed cameras a glimpse of just how tenuous his government's control may be. The sound of nearby fighting, and the obvious nervousness of his troops, belied his confident statements.

Rebel troops following the Congo's former Marxist military leader, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, continued their advance through the capital, sending thousands of civilians fleeing. Most of Brazzaville has been abandoned to the warring militiamen.

Sassou-Nguessa's militiamen also claimed they had seized control of the airport and the palace.

But with support from the "Ninja" militia of his newly appointed Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas, Lissouba's army was able to regain control of the airport.

The Ninja militia had been involved in ethnic and political fighting in 1993 but until now had remained neutral in the current conflict.

Grisly evidence of fighting at the airport was evident. The bodies of rival Cobra militiamen lay strewn on the ground, along with abandoned mortar rounds around the airport tarmac and close to the main terminal.

The showdown began in June, when the president moved to disband Sassou-Nguesso's militia in advance of planned July presidential elections. Since then, Sassou-Nguesso and his Cobra fighters have taken control of up to three quarters of the country, leaving Lissouba with only a thin strip from Brazzaville to the Atlantic.

Fighting has already left as many as 4,000 people dead, and forced many thousands more to flee. Kolelas says he is getting involved in the conflict to prevent the displacement of more civilians.

Sassou-Nguesso accuses the president of precipitating the fighting to avoid elections and prolong his stay in power. Lissouba says he intends to defeat the Cobra militia, and then let the people have their say.

"If our people did not agree (to) what we are doing, he has very simple means to do that, by elections," Lissouba said.

Despite the help of the Ninja group, Lissouba may be a long way from prying the rest of Brazzaville away from Sassou-Nguesso, let alone defeating him. And the latest fighting, which makes a mockery of a draft cease-fire agreement signed by all sides, makes the prospect of elections even more remote.


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