Rebels fighting Rebels

Attackers wreak havoc on rebel-held Congo town.

On September 14, 1998, I was woken up by the sound of gunfire. Looking out on the balcony of my hotel overlooking Lake Kivu, I could see people running across the top of a hilltop with several fires burning on it. The hilltop was home to the city's state radio station, and Mai Mai militiamen had just overrun it. The fighting went on through the early afternoon, until Congolese rebels and Rwandan troops pushed them back.

By Todd Pitman

GOMA, Congo, Sept 15 (Reuters) - The attackers came before dawn in the hundreds, singing war songs in the streets and firing cannons into the town.

As residents ducked for cover and fires burned on a hill overlooking the town, sustained bursts of machinegun and mortar fire echoed across this lakeside town in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Monday.

Listen to the attack.

Tutsi-led rebels fighting to topple President Laurent Kabila launched a rebellion in Goma on August 2, quickly taking control of a vast area on Congo's eastern borders with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

But on Monday, a coalition of Rwandan Hutu extremists and traditional Mai Mai warriors from eastern Congo launched a six-hour offensive on Goma in which dozens were killed or wounded, rebel officials and witnesses said.

Rebel captain Dieudonne Bolakofo said Hutu militias - including the Interahamwe and the former Rwandan army (ex-FAR) - launched a coordinated attack "simultaneously on the airport, the radio station, a military camp and the port".

The fighting, which caught residents by surprise, cleared normally bustling streets of civilians. Shops and kiosks shut down.

Witnesses, pinned down in hotels by the shooting, reported heavy weapons fire coming from the direction of Lake Kivu. Three motorboats mounted with machineguns cruised up and down the lake.

Listen to more of the attack.

Speaking over Goma's Voice of the People radio, rebel military chief Jean-Pierre Ondekane called on residents to remain calm, stay in their houses, and not give shelter to "the enemy".

Asked how many were killed in the fighting, Ondekane said: "We don't know, but there are bodies everywhere."

Dozens of children gathered to look at the corpses of two young men lying in pools of blood in the town.

Residents and rebel soldiers said the two - one with a military jacket and red bandanna tied around his head, the second in civilians clothes - had been among those who had launched the attack.

Lying in a bed at Goma Hospital, 25-year-old Mokela Lisakopasa said up to 30 civilians were killed in his neighbourhood alone.

"The Mai Mai and Interahamwe attacked at 5 a.m. There were more than 500 of them. We all hid in our houses, but I was hit by a bullet in my arm," he said.

Residents say the Mai Mai - who believe magic water can protect them from bullets - have clashed with rebels in the hills around Goma at least three times since the rebellion began.

Medical sources at the hospital said at least three people were killed and 14 were wounded in Monday's fighting. One of the dead and six of the wounded were rebel soldiers and the rest were civilians, they said.

Armed rebel troops combing Goma's suburbs for Mai Mai fighters told journalists three rebel battalions - about 2,400 men - had engaged several hundred Hutu militia fighters armed with cannon and Kalashnikov rifles in the morning battle.

Ondekane said his forces had captured about 200 Interahamwe and ex-FAR soldiers and showed journalists 14 captives. All were dressed in civilian clothes and some, with dried blood caked on their faces, appeared to have been beaten.

"It's Kabila who armed them (the attackers). Kabila is not only the enemy of the Congolese, but also the enemy of the neighbouring countries," Ondekane said.

Interahamwe and ex-FAR soldiers were jointly responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

One of the prisoners identified himself as Corporal Vincent Habimana, a 32-year-old Hutu and a former Rwandan army infantryman.

Habimana said he was part of the group of ex-FAR and Interahamwe militia who launched Monday's attack with small arms and 60mm mortar.

"Our objective was to take Goma and then Gisenyi," he said, referring to the twon across the border in Rwanda. "There were almost 900 of us. The others fled and took the road (east) toward Virunga and the volcanoes," Habimana said.

By Monday afternoon frightened residents began to come out of their houses to assess the damage.

In one part of the town built on volcanic rock, 26-year-old Zainda Ciza pointed to a foot-wide (30 cm-wide) hole in the wooden side of his house which he said was hit by a rocket.
"We were hiding on the floor and it came in here and exploded," he said.

The explosion sent shrapnel flying in all directions, ripping 12 holes through a tin roof, but miraculously wounding nobody.

By dusk, a helicopter patrolled the skies over Goma while tanks and armoured personnel carriers filled with rebel troops patrolled empty streets.

(C) Reuters Limited 1998.