Peasants and villagers in Zaire's richest province, now under attack by invaders, are leaving towns along the front lines almost deserted as they flee - not from the invaders but from the Zaire troops, representatives of a government they do not recognize.

Here in Mutshatsha, a town of 5,000 people only a few miles from the fighting, the residents shun the government troops. They scatter and hide when they see a government soldier and they refuse to provide food for the army.

Like the residents of many towns in Shaba Province, formerly called Katanga, they do not consider Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko their leader. Mobutu is not popular here. The accepted leader is Daniel Tshombe, brother of the late Moise Tshombe, who led an unsuccessful Katangan secessionist movement in the 1960s.

The Zaire government charges that the Katangan invaders, after crossing into Zaire from Angola, are getting local support, mainly food and shelter, from the same towns that spurn the government soldiers. This comes as no suprise to observers aware of the long dispute over authority in the area.

The current tensions here reflect the depth of one of the biggest problems on the African continent: tribalism. Zaire is one of the chrinic cases, with an estimated 200 tribes and subtribes and more than 700 local dialets.

The Lunda tribe, which dominates in this southeastern section of Zaire, is fiercey independent. It has opposed the government since the former Belgian Congo gained independence in 1960.

The Lunda have never recognized Zaire's national boundaries. For centuries their "nation" has been a 15,000-square-mile area that spreads across parts of Zaire, Angola and Zambia.

The Zaire government charged last week that the Katangans are traitors because they fled to Angola after the failure of the secessionist movement and allegedly became, Angola citizene. The Lauda do not agree. They contend that they have always moved freely in and out of countries, following tribal, not international boundaries.

Two weeks ago this picturesque town deep in the heart of Zaire's rich mineral belt was hustling with activity, most of the residents working on corn, manioe and peanut crops, or at the railroad station on the Bonguela line, one of Africa's most important railways.

Now the town is almost deserted. There are more army troops than residents. The main activities center around the battle a few miles away.

The dramatic change is due to a surprise attack this month by men who used to police the area for Gov. Moise Tshombe. For 14 years, since the end of Tshombe's attempt to secede from Zaire, these men, known as the katangan gendarmes, have lived in exile in neighboring Angola.

On March 8 they came back, in another fear the milicant Katangans. They are running from the government troops men of aliens and other regions of the east central African country.

The leader of the Lunda is the Mwanti Yau Bumb Muteb - better known as Daniel Tshombe. The title translates, he wrote in a Kolwezi hotel registry last week, as "emperor, Lunda kingdom of Zaire, Angola and Zambia."

Tshombe is much more popular than Mobutu in this region. During Mobutu's five-hour visit to Kolwezi Saturday, signs throughout the town declared: "Mobutu: our only guide, our only spirit, our only salvation." Within hours after the president's departure, the signs were taken down.

The local government brought the younger Tshombe in for the Mobutu tour in order to insure crowds for the president - and to impress journalists who accompanied Mobutu.

The Tshombe family's fate in recent years helps explain the growing divisions in this region. Moise died in Algiers in 1969 under strange circumstances two years after he was kidnaped in Europe and flown to Algiers in a hijacked charter plane.

David Tshombe, the Lunda tribe's next emperor, died in 1975 of poisoning under mysterious circumstances. Some local Africans blamed the Zaire government, although there was never any proof.

Daniel Tshombe has had repeated battles with officials. Since he came to power four years ago, the wealthy businessman - he owns transport services and a chain of stores built up by his father - has seen his power slowly taken away from him.

He charged recently that the government is plotting to wipe him out completely by using his services, but delaying payment. The bill has reached several hundred thousand dollars over the past few years, associates claim.

Tshombe backers also believe the Mobutu government has attempted to hinder development of the Lunda region by denying funds. Although Shaba Province's mineral wealth provides more than 70 per cent of Zaire's foreign exchange and about 60 per cent of its exports, little of this revenue has been channeled back, they say.