Road testifies to foreign nature of Congo war

04:12 p.m Mar 18, 1999 Eastern

By Todd Pitman

ESHIMBA, Congo, March 18 (Reuters) - The sandy road running southwest from the eastern Congolese town of Eshimba is strewn with human remains and the debris of war.

At least 31 bloated bodies, most of them Zimbabwean soldiers felled by Congolese rebels and their Rwandan allies during an ambush earlier this week, lie crumpled beside the road in a scene reminiscent of a horror film.

A white-painted lorry, its windscreen holed by bullets, stands abandoned near two putrifying corpses in military garb, one with eyes and tongue bulging out, the other prostrate with rigid arms outstretched.

In a field of short yellow and green grass to one side of the road lay two dozen more dead soldiers, most of them killed by bullets and their bodies now crawling with white maggots.

The road itself heads off towards the horizon through green, rolling savannah. But it is littered with spent cartridges, empty green and tan ammunition boxes and scores of green casings for 81 mm mortar bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

Near the bodies lie personal letters in English postmarked from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, and copies of Zimbabwe's Herald newspaper and Zambezi lager beer cartons.

The scene is a testament to the foreign tone of Congo's war, which has sucked in the armies of at least six African nations.

Zimbabwe has sent thousands of troops into the Congo to help the embattled army of President Laurent Kabila, which has struggled to put down the rebellion with little success since it began in the east of the country last August.

The rebels, with troops, military and logistical support from Uganda and Rwanda, have captured huge swathes of territory in the north and east of the vast nation.

A Rwandan commander who gave his name only as Major Denis said a coalition of thousands of Rwandan troops and Congolese rebels had earlier in Eshimba ambushed a convoy made up of one battalion each of Zimbabwean and Congolese troops and Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe militia.

``We killed about 200 of them, 80 were Zimbabwean and the rest were Congolese and Interahamwe, `` Denis told reporters, adding five rebels had died and 15 were wounded in the skirmish.

In Katunga village, the rebels' rear base a few kilometres (miles) northeast of Eshimba, the rebels displayed two armoured personnel carriers fitted with anti-aircraft guns, two multiple rocket launchers and a huge cache of submachine guns all captured from government-allied troops.

Denis said his troops had also captured three Zimbabwean soldiers alive in the fight, all of whom sat under a tree surrounded by soldiers in Katunga.

One of them, Corporal Godfrey Kuseka from Zimbabwe's Masvingo province, was shot in the arm but not seriously wounded when rebel troops launched the surprise attack.

Kuseka said he was part of a convoy that was ``clearing the road'' when Rwandan and Congolese soldiers swept across the savannah from a thicket of dense bush.

``When we saw those thick bushes...we thought perhaps the enemy might be in there,'' said Kuseka, a 34-year-old army engineer. ``And that's where we started experiencing contact.''

Rebel commanders say they are now eyeing the country's main diamond mining centre at Mbuji-Mayi, about 140 km (85 miles) southwest of Eshimba.

Rwandan rebel commanders in Eshimba said most government-allied troops had fled after the weeks' battle 40 km (25 miles) west toward the government-held town of Kabinda, the rebels' next target.

On Thursday morning, a Zimbabwean MiG fighter jet screeched through the skies over Eshimba, loosing at least one bomb that left a crater several metres deep which felled several thatched mud huts, witnesses said.

A day earlier, Densis said rebel troops had shot down a Zimbabwean fighter jet with a missle seven km (four miles) southwest of Eshimba in no-man's land between battle lines.

As night fell at Katunga, which is devoid of most its original inhabitants, several hundred rebel soldiers milled about, charging radios on small portable generators and eating tins of corned beef, beans and high-protein biscuits.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.