As the confusion surrounding the rebel seizure of Kolwezi slowly subsides, the picture of what really happened in that now-empty mining town, who executed whom and how many died is becoming clearer.

It appears that fewer were killed than previous reports indicated.

The initial avalanche of conflicting reports from fleeing Europeans, French and Belgian military sources and Zairian authorities made accurate reporting extremely difficult.

In retrospect, it seems some of the initial reports from French and Zairian sources of whites being massacred were deliberately exaggerated to gain quick Western public sympathy for thr French-Belfian rescue mission of the more than 2,000 Europeans in the town.

The first impression was of a systematic killing of whites by the rebels, most of the deaths occurring at three or four mass execution sites.

It now appears that most of the killing was random and arbitrary, that both the rebels and Zairian army soldiers participated at different times in helping and in executing Europeans and that the majority of victims, white and black, died singly or in small groups.

French military sources in Kolwezi say that captured rebel documents included no orders to kill Europeans although it is possible that the license to do so came when it was learned that French Legionnaires were on their way to Kolwezi.

As for the total number of Europeans and Zairians who perished during the six-day siege, the hunt for bodies now being conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Belgian and French medical teams so far does not bear out the initial high estimates.

The Red Cross figures for bodies picked up in and around the town between Tuesday and Friday are 56 Zairian troops, 111 black African civilians, and 95 Europeans, making a total of 262 confirmed deaths.

A seven-man Belgian medical team counted only 64 Europeans, of which it was able to identify 23. A French consular officer who visited Kolwezi Thursday gave the figure of 123 confirmed white deaths.

All three figures are significantly below the official French government estimate of 200 put out atmidweek

While the truth remains hazy, there are several clear examples of exaggerated and probably deliberately planted figures given out either by Zairian or French authorities to create the impression that the rebels had carried out mass executions of Europeans.

The first reports of any such killings came from the Zairian government on May 19, the day that the French paratroops landed on Kolwezi, saying the bodies of 44 Europeans had been discovered in one villa.

The report was not altogether false. When Western journalists arriving the next day were taken to the villa massacre site they saw European bodies stacked in a pile in one small room and seemingly executed all at one time. As best as they could determine there were 34 bodies but the number verified later by French and Belgian authorities was 27.

Correspondents heard the same day reports from European refugees and French and Belgian military sources of three or four other massacre sites but none could be visually confirmed during their brief visit.

Yet refugee accounts already began to conflict with the official thesis of who was killing whom. Two French survivors said they had seen 20 Europeans executed en masse not by the rebels but by men wearing Zairian army uniforms.

Two survivors of the villa massacre told reporters that the Europeans initially had been rounded up and taken there by Zairian army troops holding out against the rebels at a nearby stronghold. The pretext was that they were to be evacuated and they all brought suitcases. But the survivors felt the army may have intended to use them as a shield.

One version holds that some of them were killed or wounded in early crossfire between rebels and army soldiers. Most accounts agree that the rebels finished off the survivors after taking the villa.

On the same trip to Kolwezi, Belgian correspondents were taken aside and told by high Zarian authorities that 60 white hostages taken off by the retreating rebels had been killed and their bodies spotted on the road leading southward to the Zambian border.

However, the report was erroneous. No one has been able to confirm exactly how many Europeans were seized as the rebels left Kolwezi and none of their bodies has been found.

The French also seemed to play politics with death tolls last week, as Illustrated by the mid-week announcement of 200 Europeans having been killed - while in Kolwezi not even the French military could confirm half that number.

In another case, Col. Philip Erulin, commander of the French foreign Legion force that stormed Kolweze, told journalists at the beginning of the week that his Legionaires had killed 300 rebels. Later he spoke variously of 250 and 400 killed. But no reporter has seen any evidence that such a large number of rebels were killed.

Zairians in Kolwezi say the main rebel force began evacuating the town, with more than 200 of their wounded taken from the hospital, 24 hours before the Legionaires arrived - leaving behind only commando groups in and around Kolwezi to face the French assault.

As for how many Zairian civilians died in the siege, the toll will probably never be known. Western correspondents saw only one African execution site, where there were 17 bodies. But they saw dozens of individual Zairian bodies scattered in the European section of town where the fighting apparently was the heaviest.

Most seemed to have been killed in crossfire. Zairian doctors and Red Cross workersreport that many others died in their homes, hit by stray bullets or motar shells, while the rebels carefully selected some government officials or sympathizers for execution.

The most common estimate of Zairian civilian deaths is somewhere between 200 and 300 even though the Red Cross has so far confirmed only 111. The search for bodies continues in homes throughout the African quarters and the official number is likely to rise.

The picture beginning to form of what happened in Kolwezi is one of the greatest number of Europeans meeting their death in or near their own homes at the hands of undisciplined rebels acting on whim and individual initiative rather than being rounded up and executed in large groups.

As for the behavior of Zairian soldiers, there are some reports of their helping Europeans excape death and others just the reverse.

One American tourist, Richard Black, told reporters how Zairian soldiers saved him and his Australian girl friend from being killed by a mob and there is another report that the son of Pastor Kenneth Enright, a well-known American missionary in Kolwezi, was spared from death because a Zairian soldier being held prisoner lied about Enright's true identity.

As for the rebels, there are many roports of the commanders acting to protect whites rather than ordering their execution.

Altogether, death seems to have come to 300 to 400 Zairians and Europeans in Kolwezi in a mostly haphazard manner, with no overall design to the killing or even the saving of some lives either by rebels or Zairian soldiers.