Rifts between the countries backing Congo's fractious rebel groups split wide open today as the armies of ostensible allies Rwanda and Uganda fought a pitched battle for control of a Congolese city they had held jointly for a year.
The mortar and artillery battle for the Congo River city of Kisangani exploded the simmering tensions between two governments that united in 1997 to help sweep dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from the country he called Zaire. Only a year ago, Rwanda and Uganda again sent their armies to support a rebellion aimed at ousting his replacement, Laurent Kabila, who named himself president and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Differences over how to conduct the current war led to divisions in the principal rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, which splintered into two factions--one backed by Rwanda, the other by Uganda. Until this past weekend, those differences had been played out in political infighting, but on Sunday, fighting erupted at the Kisangani airport and spread to the mildewed city center. By tonight, Rwandan troops were said to have taken control of a hotel and textile factory previously held by the rebel leader supported by Uganda, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba.
Neither side would discuss casualties, but the Associated Press reported that physicians in the city of about 1 million had counted more than 50 civilian dead.
Whichever faction prevails, analysts said the fighting already had shattered what remained of the myth of an "African Renaissance." President Clinton invoked the phrase during his extended visit to the continent last year, embracing the leaders of both Uganda and Rwanda as exemplars. Two other former allies described as among the continent's brightest hopes, Ethiopia and Eritrea, have been locked in trench warfare over a disputed border for more than a year.
In both cases, Washington dispatched a mediator to try to bring together the supposed friends; today, Gayle Smith, Clinton's national security adviser for Africa, arrived in Uganda. Rwandan Vice President Paul Kagame, who controls his country's government, had already arrived to meet with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
The two leaders have a long history as allies, having fought together in the rebel movement that brought Museveni to power in Uganda in 1986. Museveni then helped sponsor the Rwandan Tutsi rebel force, led by Kagame, that fought its way to power in 1994 and halted the genocide being carried out by extremist Hutus against Rwanda's Tutsi minority.
But they now find themselves divided over which rebel faction will sign a fragile peace accord intended to end the Congo rebellion. Rwanda and Uganda, as well as Kabila and his allies, signed the agreement July 10, but the divided Congolese Rally for Democracy did not.
Rwanda backs the larger faction, based in the Congolese border city of Goma. Uganda supports Wamba, who after being ousted by the Goma group, decamped to Kisangani. Wamba has insisted that he be allowed to sign the peace accord, and his Goma rivals refuse to sign if he does. "Wamba does not control even one soldier," Bizima Karaha, a leader of the Goma faction, said in a telephone interview.
To break the deadlock, diplomats from South Africa and Zambia traveled to Kisangani this month to assess the rivals' claims. The trip was preceded by a flurry of fighting that the Goma faction called an attempt by Uganda to improve Wamba's military profile for the benefit of the visitors. Karaha suggested that a similar motive accounted for the much heavier fighting Sunday and today. "They want to create a de facto situation on the ground," he said.
At the same time, Karaha took pains not to blame the Ugandan government. He repeated the claims of a Rwandan government spokesman that the fighting at Kisangani was spurred by a rogue Ugandan commander acting to defend personal interests in the city, a trading center for the region's substantial diamond riches. The Ugandan army also controls gold mines in Congo.
In Uganda, a Museveni adviser also played down what was widely described as heavy fighting. "These things happen in families," said John Nagenda, the adviser. "They've happened now between two very good friends, Rwanda and Uganda. At the top, I believe these things will be worked out."
Nagenda said the countries' leaders, after meeting in a Ugandan safari lodge on Lake Edward, will produce a communique putting the matter to rest. He emphasized the Ugandan government's amicable history with Rwanda's leadership and its commitment to fighting Rwandan Hutu extremists who stage cross-border attacks from Congo's jungles.
But he added: "If Uganda and Rwanda were to go their separate ways, the biggest loser would be Rwanda. Nobody's going to throw us out of Kisangani. I know that for a fact."
CAPTION: Congo President Laurent Kabila has signed a multi-party peace accord, but the divided rebel force has not.
CAPTION: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, left, and Rwandan Vice President Paul Kagame are to meet with a U.S. mediator to try to resolve the bloody dispute.