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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Martial Law Set in War-Torn East Zaire

BUKAVU, Zaire -- Zaire's sick and absent president Tuesday sought to reassert his authority in the war-ravaged east of his country where Tutsi rebels have seized towns and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees.


The conflict threatens to drag in Zaire's neighbors Rwanda and Burundi and some believe it could presage the breakup of Zaire, a giant at the heart of Africa.


A government spokesman in Kinshasa said Mobutu, sending orders from a Swiss clinic, had placed the eastern provinces of South and North Kivu under military rule in an attempt to contain the warfare.


In the lakeside city of Bukavu, from which more than 100 foreigners have fled since the weekend, looting by soldiers diminished Tuesday. But it was not clear whether Mobutu, who since August has been in Lausanne for prostate cancer treatment, had the military muscle to win back lost territory quickly.


Reuters Television cameraman Patrick Muiruri in Cyangugu, Rwanda, just across the border from Bukavu, reported sustained fighting overnight and on Tuesday morning north of Bukavu.


He also reported many exchanges of mortar fire 3 kilometers south of Bukavu city center. "I saw a couple of shells land directly on Zairean positions and soldiers scatter left, right and center," he said.


Underlying the violence is the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry that exploded in the 1994 massacres in Rwanda of up to a million Tutsis and pro-opposition Hutus by hardline Hutus.


Ethnic tension in eastern Zaire degenerated into clashes after the arrival of more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees in 1994. Hutus from Burundi also fled into the same region.


Each side in the Zaire fighting accuses the other of having military support from Rwandans.


On Monday Zairean television paraded 10 alleged Tutsi Rwandan soldiers as "prisoners of war" and state media urged the army to hit Rwanda hard.


Independent reports suggest that Hutu soldiers from the former Rwandan army which joined in the 1994 genocide are fighting alongside Zairean troops.


A nurse in a Bukavu hospital said Tuesday that three former Rwandan Hutu soldiers were treated for gunshot wounds sustained in fighting against the Tutsi rebels at Kaziba, 30 kilometers south of Bukavu.


Refugees arriving in Burundi from Zaire said hundreds of people were killed in battles last week for the town of Uvira, about 120 kilometers south of Bukavu. The refugees said the town, captured last Friday, was now in the hands of Tutsi Banyamulenge rebels, who say they are fighting Zairean attempts to expel them.


Despite the upheaval in eastern Zaire, Rwandan Hutus are reluctant to go home, where they fear reprisals from the Tutsi-led army for their role in the genocide.


Chris Szabandula, Nairobi spokesman for a Hutu refugee lobby group, the Rally for the Return of Refugees and Democracy in Rwanda, said Tuesday that it was still too dangerous for the Rwandan refugees to return.


"They can't go home because the situation inside the country is not conducive yet," he said. "There is still insecurity, the army is still killing the people. The prisons are full of inmates, the situation does not allow repatriation in mass."