Rwanda, Uganda and a Congo trampled underfoot

Fighting rages into night in Congo's diamond city

Rwanda and Uganda fought in Kisangani for a week in the summer of 2000, trading artillery fire from rear positions and shooting e in town. The ICRC said at least 518 people died and 1,668 were wounded. It was the third time the former allies fought in Congo in less than a year. My good friend, AP correspondent Hrvoje Hranjski, was shot in the chest in Kisangani during previous fighting there on Aug. 18, 1999.

June 7, 2000

By Todd Pitman

KISANGANI, Congo, June 8 (Reuters) - Rockets lit the sky over the Congolese city of Kisangani on Wednesday night as Rwandan and Ugandan troops traded fire in a third day of battles during which more than 50 civilians have died.

Explosions rocked the city centre as dozens of rockets traced red lines across the sky, silhouetted by palm trees, and the clatter of small arms fire sent residents running for cover or kept them crouching in their homes.

"We had a ceasefire tonight - for 15 minutes," said Colonel Karenze Karake, operational commander of the Rwandan army.

Listen to Ugandan artillery shells whistle overhead and explode, and Rwanda fire back from a position on a bank of the Congo River.

Another ceasefire, brokered by the United Nations earlier on Wednesday, was also quickly shattered - within half an hour - as the two sides resumed battle for control of the city, the centre of the diamond trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"There are many civilian casualties and casualties among the soldiers.

What do you expect after three days of fighting with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and with light and heavy mortars," said Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Kalyongo, another Rwandan officer.

U.N. officials and aid workers earlier on Wednesday put the death toll at more than 50 civilians, including at least 19 children, since fighting began on Monday.

"The current toll is more than 100 wounded and above 50 dead among the civilian population since the fighting began," said Alexandre Liebeskind of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kisangani.

Mortar bombs landed on a school on the northwestern outskirts of the town, hit the cathedral by the banks of the Congo river in the south and also landed in the adjacent U.N. headquarters.

Rwanda and Uganda used to be staunch allies but now support different rebel factions fighting in the former Zaire and have clashed several times for control of Kisangani.

"Rwandans are firing from this side," said Lieutenant-Colonel Danilo Paiva, commander of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the town, pointing south, "and Ugandans are firing from that side. The problem is that we are stuck in the middle."

Local people clambered onto the wooden roof of the church to extinguish the flames after the mortar round hit, while others ran into the building to bring out bibles, pews, flowers, clothes and an electronic keyboard.

In the streets earlier, civilians ran with their heads down as bullets whipped through the trees.

"What are they going to leave us with?" one woman said. "They are destroying everything. What did we do to deserve this?"

Rwandan officers, who control the part of town around the cathedral, accused Ugandans of starting Wednesday's fighting and said Uganda already had five battalions on the northwestern outskirts of town.

Paiva s aid the United Nations was trying to get the Ugandans to withdraw to 700 metres (yards) north of the Tshopo river bridge and the Rwandans to pull back 700 metres to the south, so the U.N. could establish a checkpoint at the bridge.

"The problem is that the commanders on the ground have no clear orders from their countries (to withdraw)," he said.

The latest fighting began on Monday morning when Ugandan troops shelled Rwandan positions in response to an attack on a Ugandan army vehicle by unidentified assailants.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, echoing an appeal by the Security Council, called on Rwanda and Uganda on Wednesday to immediately stop fighting in Kisangani and withdraw their forces.

Despite repeated U.N. efforts to organise a ceasefire, "the two sides have continued to exchange artillery, mortar and small arms fire" and several U.N. workers had been wounded, the statement added.

An agreement signed last year in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, was meant to end a many-sided conflict in which the government of Congolese President Laurent Kabila is backed by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia against the rebel groups and their Rwandan and Ugandan backers.

(C) Reuters Limited 2000.