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Rebels thrust toward last government-held town in E. Zaire

Government forces reportedly defect

December 8, 1996
Web posted at: 11:30 a.m. EST (1630 GMT)

BENI, Zaire (CNN) -- Zairian rebels fought Sunday for control of the last town held by government troops in eastern Zaire as their campaign to oust President Mobutu Sese Seko intensified.

A Zairian rebel officer in the northeastern town of Beni said his forces had surrounded the government-held town of Bunia, 100 miles (160 km) north, and were planning to capture it.


"Bunia hasn't fallen yet. We're still in the process of taking it," said the officer, who only identified himself as Jacques.

But Bunia residents, contacted by radio, contradicted rebel claims, saying government forces had secured the town. Though details of the fighting were unclear, the government said at least 10 people were killed.

News of the fighting came as Zairian rebels said more than 300 government troops, including a colonel and three captains, had defected to their side.

Rebel commander Andre Ngundu Kissasse told the Sunday Standard of Kenya that his troops were gaining momentum in their push to topple Mobutu's 31-year regime.

"As I speak now, over 300 of Mobutu's soldiers have already joined our forces," the commander said. "They are fed up with Mobutu."

He added, "Mothers, children and men are joining us night and day to fight our common enemy."

Over the past six weeks, rebels have overrun a wide swath of territory in eastern Zaire that stretches nearly 300 miles (480 km). Rebels took over Beni Friday before pushing toward Bunia, roughly 75 miles (120 km) to the north. Because of the rebel successes, Zairians and international observers have been taking more seriously rebel threats to oust Mobutu.

Refugees flee in Tanzania

In nearby Tanzania, thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees abandoned two entire camps in the Karagwe region on Sunday, aid workers said.

The refugees fled from Kagenyi and Rubwera camps, which had held about 41,000 Rwandans and are part of a chain of five camps in northwestern Tanzania with about 110,000 refugees.

"These two camps appear to be empty now," said Bradley Guerrant of the U.N. World Food Program.

Aid workers said hard line Hutu groups may have organized the mass exodus in response to an order by the Tanzanian government that all Rwandan Hutu refugees in Tanzania return to Rwanda by the end of the month.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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