Bemba's Fiefdom

In northern Congo, war goes on unabated

October 3, 2000

By Todd Pitman

GEMENA, Congo, Oct 3 (Reuters) - When Eundja Fosela saw a fighter jet screeching through the sky over his small town in rebel-held northern Congo this week, he quickly took shelter like hundreds of other residents inside his small thatched hut.

Crouched on the floor with his family, the 62-year-old former civil servant heard a loud thud in front of his house and braced for an explosion, but none ever came.

A 100-kilogram bomb tossed from a low-flying government MiG had plowed into red dirt just in front of Fosela's house -- but by a miracle, did not explode.

"When we decided to go outside again we saw the bomb just two metres in front of our door," Fosela said.

"Of course we were afraid. But we were lucky. We realized immediately that we'd escaped death."

Another unexploded bomb, a two-foot long white cylinder with a crumpled fin at its base, lay in tall green grass nearby, but others were not so lucky.

A third bomb did blow up, crashing down in front of a mud house in the same area, wounding several people and leaving a crater several metres across.

The attack on Saturday sparked the flight of several thousand people and forced the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), a Ugandan-backed rebel group headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, to put off celebrations marking its second anniversary.

The MLC has been fighting since late 1998 against Democratic Republic of the Congo President Laurent Kabila, who has remained in power with vital military support from Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia.


A peace deal signed last year in the Zambian capital Lusaka has eased most fighting on the southern front -- where another rebel group controlled by Rwanda is operating -- but clashes in MLC-controlled areas have continued unabated.

"The frontline is about 350 km from here so when Kabila comes and kills civilians, what does it mean? He's just a criminal," Bemba told Reuters in a recent interview in Gemena, around 1,000 km north of the capital Kinshasa.

"That is … what Kabila considers should be the solution of the Congo crisis, bombardments of civilians. Gemena is not a military target."

Bemba's rebel group controls a swath of territory in the northern province of Equator, much of which has switched hands frequently over the course of the war.

In June, the government launched a counter-offensive on rebel positions in the province but Ugandan forces and rebel troops have since recaptured most towns that had been taken by Kabila's forces and brought the advance to a halt.

Bemba has said consistently he has no interest in advancing farther than the lines defined in the Lusaka accord. But United Nations observers based in Congo say Bemba is only paying lip service to the deal.

Last week, a U.N. military spokesman said MLC troops in Equator were moving south along several road and river routes and had captured key towns on the river Congo.

They said the MLC had seized the town of Lulonga, 60 km (38 miles) north of the provincial capital of Mbandaka -- a charge Bemba flatly denies.

"It's not true. We don't control Lulonga. We may capture it in the future, but it is not ours now," Bemba said.


During a rally in Gemena on Sunday, Bemba threatened to battle on to Mbandaka, where rebels say government aircraft are taking off every day to bomb rebel territories.

The city's capture would set the stage for a rebel assault on the capital Kinshasa and would be the most significant departure from Lusaka since the deal was signed in 1999.

Analysts say Bemba may be maneuvering diplomatically to prepare ground for the assault.

MLC officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bemba -- as well as his Ugandan backers -- met with senior members of the Angolan army last week to assure them they do not support Angolan rebels headed by Jonas Savimbi.

While the purpose of the meetings is far from clear, analysts say the move may be aimed at convincing Angola -- a key power behind Kabila but a country contending with its own rebellion -- to abandon Kabila or give a green light to an MLC advance on Mbandaka.

"The war is another form of politics, that is why we signed Lusaka, we believe that with Lusaka we shall succeed (in having) a new political order in Congo by peace," Bemba said.

"If Kabila believes that war is the solution, that will be the line that we are going to go."

Copyright Reuters, 2003. All rights reserved.