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Archive for Thursday, June 3, 2004

Congolese rebels take control of strategic town

June 3, 2004

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— Renegade commanders captured this strategic Congolese town Wednesday, setting off a crisis that threatened the fragile transitional government and a peace process that ended five years of war.

Congo President Joseph Kabila accused neighbor and rival Rwanda in the takeover, and went on national television to declare he had begun implemention of a state of emergency across Congo. Rwanda denied any involvement.

The loss of Bukavu, a trading center on the border with Rwanda, would be the biggest setback to the U.N.-backed government since it was set up a year ago to end the fighting.

That war drew in the armies of six African nations, split resource-rich Congo and killed an estimated 3.5 million people through violence, famine and disease.

The renegades behind the capture of Bukavu -- who had complained of mistreatment by the region's military commanders -- said they were prepared to negotiate, but were also ready to fight.

"I've been in charge of Bukavu militarily since 11 o'clock this morning," renegade Brig. Gen. Laurent Nkunda told reporters at the governor's mansion.

At least 10 people were wounded in the fighting Wednesday, said Lucia Alberghini, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Bukavu. Between 2,000 and 3,600 people caught in the conflict fled across the nearby border into Rwanda.

Amid the chaos, civilians looted two barges loaded with 300 tons of food aid, the U.N. World Food Program said, adding that unconfirmed reports indicated a WFP warehouse containing 1,000 tons of food also was looted.

"There was heavy looting this morning, mostly by civilians," said Ndeley Agbaw, head of WFP's office in Bukavu. "Now most people are locked in their houses."

The forces that captured Bukavu are loyal to Nkunda and Col. Jules Mutebutsi, former rebels who joined the army after the civil war.

Mutebutsi told The Associated Press the government's military commander in the region, Brig. Gen. Mbuza Mabe, had fled.

"Many of his troops have joined us, others have shed their uniforms and are staying at their homes, and a few have fled with Mabe," Mutebutsi said by telephone.

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