Zairian rebels seized the key eastern city of Kisangani on Saturday. The assault dealt a crippling blow to Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko and signaled the effective partition of Africa's third-largest nation.
The anti-Mobutu forces attacked Friday, seizing the international airport outside the city, which had been the Zairian military's stronghold. The attackers appeared to have punched quickly through the army's lines by using artillery and armored vehicles that diplomats said had recently arrived overland from Uganda.
Zairian army forces fled across the river after first looting what they could, according to rebel accounts corroborated by U.N. officials. The number of casualties was not known.
Serb mercenaries who were to protect the city along with Mobutu's army apparently came under attack from their own side as army soldiers switched allegiance in the face of the rebel push, Reuters news agency said. A French aircraft evacuated 18 foreign nationals from the city, including aid workers, as the battle raged on the city's outskirts, a U.N. official said.
Kisangani, an eastern rail and river hub that is home to about 500,000 people, was to have been the launching pad for the Zairian army's counteroffensive against the rebels. But Mobutu's ill-disciplined and poorly equipped forces made little headway in the rebels' five-month campaign and were beaten or forced to retreat at nearly every turn as the rebels gobbled up most of eastern Zaire.
Though some reports suggest fighting at Kisangani continued late Saturday, rebel leader Laurent Kabila declared from Goma, "Kisangani has fallen into our hands."
Even before the city's capture, attention turned to the danger of a military coup or other upheaval in Kinshasa, the capital. Zairian analysts and diplomats said they expected Mobutu's government to be ousted imminently, marking the final loss of his authority in Zaire. Mobutu is in France, where he has spent months convalescing after surgery for prostate cancer.
Mobutu's son, Mobutu Nzanga, had said Wednesday in France that Mobutu planned to return to Zaire this week. But a Western diplomat said that "now, if he tried to come back, the best he might do would be to rally a handful of loyalists around him in Gbadolite," his native town in the deep jungle of Zaire's far north.
"Anything can happen now," said a foreign businessman based in Kinshasa who asked not to be named. He and others voiced worry at a volatile mix of passions, fears and politics in the capital city of 2.5-million.
Most people are desperately poor and many are ready to celebrate the government's ouster. Mobutu's well-organized secret police, and other pillars of his oppressive regime, are sure to feel threatened. Zairian troops have pillaged Kinshasa and other cities at times of uncertainty in recent years. And top military leaders are jockeying for power. "We are watching for a military coup, which is highly probable," a European diplomat said.
Seated inside a lake-side villa that once was a vacation home for Mobutu in the eastern town of Goma, Kabila responded with a flourish when asked his next target: "We are going everywhere." Kabila has said he wants to take the whole country and establish a transitional government in advance of national elections to replace Mobutu, the ailing autocrat of 31 years. "We are still advancing. We must liberate the whole country. That is our aim."
Paul Kabongo, a Kabila security aide, declared, "Now, Gbadolite and Kinshasa."
The war, which began last October, has sparked fears that the conflict will send Zairian instability bleeding across the borders of this vast nation's nine neighbors. Four of those neighbors _ Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola _ are thought to be supporting Kabila's rebels with troops and logistics.
Although the Kisangani takeover signals the seriousness of the rebel threat to the Mobutu government, it has yet to be seen whether the rebels can push farther west to the capital or to the northern town that is Mobutu's traditional stronghold. Dense rain forest separates east from west in this vast country, about as large as the United States east of the Mississippi.