Running for Cover

09Jun2000 CONGO: Congo city desolate after Rwanda, Uganda clashes. 19:45 GMT

By Todd Pitman

KISANGANI, Congo, June 9 (Reuters) - Small groups of frightened residents dashed through empty streets in the Congolese diamond city of Kisangani on Friday as Rwandan and Ugandan troops traded fierce artillery and machinegun fire for a fifth day.

The few residents in the city centre - including several Lebanese diamond dealers - who ventured out into the chaos sprinted across deserted intersections, taking temporary cover against crumbling concrete walls as they ran in search of food and crucially, water.

Listen to more incoming Ugandan rockets fly overhead and explode.

"There's nothing to eat, there's no food, no water. It's horrible," said Albert Ona, a 39-year-old diamond dealer standing against a downtown building as streams of automatic weapons fire crackled a few blocks away. "We are starving, and there are dead bodies in the streets."

The debris of leaves and palm tree trunks - apparently destroyed by falling bombs - blocked one road, while downed power lines hung low across another. Not a single shop was open.

On another boulevard, a green Rwandan Land Cruiser mounted with a heavy calibre machinegun and packed with troops sporting rocket-propelled grenade launchers patrolled through town.

Once close allies in a broader war against Democratic Republic of the Congo President Laurent Kabila that began nearly two years ago, Rwanda and Uganda have since turned their guns on one another.


Angry residents accuse them of destroying a town they say they came to liberate.

"Tell Kabila to send us arms and ammunition. If we had arms, we'd chase these people away ourselves," said one furious resident waving his fists in the air.

Kabila himself, in a live television address, called on people to arm themselves even with spears and darts to drive out the Rwandan and Ugandan troops.

Fear of thousands of stray bullets which have pierced corrugated iron rooftops and crashed into walls has kept most people indoors and prevented them from burying the dead.

Just off a street lined with dozens of diamond shops - once the city's lifeblood - flies swarmed over bodies covered with thin pieces of peeling wood and sheets.

"Five bombs fell here on Tuesday night. You see the shrapnel here," said Shungu Ndjadi, pointing to several large twisted pieces of metal in a ditch.

"We want to bury them now, they've been here for four days," he said, with a handkerchief muzzling his mouth to block the stench.

Residents said the three were outside cooking over a small iron grill when five mortar rounds fell on Tuesday.
One was hit by shell fragments in the back, another in the head, while shrapnel ripped through a third man's torso.

Two other bodies were buried in the rubble of an adjacent two-story concrete building after bombs crashed down into the first floor.


Witnesses said other bodies lay in front of the city's post office and the multi-storied Congo Palace Hotel.

United Nations observers based in the town tried but failed to negotiate a humanitarian ceasefire that was due to begin in the afternoon to allow people to get food and water and let aid agencies distribute vital medical supplies and transport city doctors - themselves hiding at home - to hospitals in town.

"They agreed in principal to a 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) deadline for it, and you see what happened to that," said Lieutenant-Colonel Khan Khalid, part of a small U.N. monitoring team stationed in the city.

"If either side cared for the civilian population, they could call a unilateral ceasefire. But they don't give a damn about the people. It's the people who are suffering, not them," Khalid said.

Aid workers say at least 100 civilians have been killed and 700 others wounded since fighting first broke out on Monday.

An International Red Cross team that ventured out to make a basic assessment of civilian casualties in the latest fighting found terrible scenes a city hospitals.

"A little girl was being treated for shrapnel wounds and while she was in her bed a stray bullet hit her and she died instantly," Liebeskind said.

But the team cut its assessment short after bullets struck their car and landed in the road in front of them.

(C) Reuters Limited 2000.