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Child soldiers lead rebel advance in Zaire

boys December 7, 1996
Web posted at 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 GMT)

(CNN) -- With boys as young as 8 years old leading the attack, Zairian rebels continued to advance northward on Saturday, expanding their hold on the eastern portion of the central African country.

The rebels, fighting under the banner of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation (Congo-Zaire), were poised Saturday to capture Bunia, the last city held by government troops in eastern Zaire. Bunia is about 230 miles (370 kilometers) north of Goma on Lake Kivu.


Carrying slingshots, spears and rosary beads, young fighters moved in trucks Saturday along the 100-mile (160-kilometer) road from Beni to Bunia.

"Military commanders from Beni have moved to the front," a rebel commander said.

In six weeks, the rebels have overrun a strip of eastern Zaire north of Lake Tanganyika. Because of the rebel successes, Zairians and international observers have been taking more seriously rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila's vow to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko's 31-year regime.

If the rebels are to capture Bunia, they must overcome Zairian government troops airlifted as reinforcements.

Once the attack begins, it's expected the Mai Mai will lead the way. The boy soldiers, some as young as 8, are called Mai Mai -- meaning powerful water in Swahili -- after a potion they believe protects them from harm.

Sporting headbands and other decorations, they dance into battle leading the attack, functioning as shock troops while older rebels provide supporting fire.

The Mai Mai have proven a formidable force against the Zairian army, as illustrated by their performance in the capture of Beni, a city of 100,000 people.

"They're the ones who carried out the expedition," said a rebel commander. "The Zairian army was routed and we carried out an ambush. There was a team in advance, the other was deployed right and left. The Zairian army entered Beni and the other group attacked from behind. The same combatants you see here -- these are the fighters who took Beni."

The armed youngsters can be unpredictable and have little tolerance for dissent. One group of boy soldiers killed a man for allegedly stealing ammunition, and dumped his body in a river.

Though they may be ruthless at times, the Mai Mai and their rebel colleagues have support among civilians in the region. They are considered a welcome alternative to the Zairian army, which reportedly spends more time looting and attacking civilians in eastern Zaire than in fighting the rebels.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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