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Tuesday, February 16, 1999 Published at 16:48 GMT

World: Africa

Congo rebels launch major offensive

Civilians are risking their lives crossing perilous Lake Tanganyika

Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they have launched a major new offensive against troops loyal to the government of President Laurent Kabila.

Grant Ferrett reports from Harare: Embattled Zimbabwean government under further pressure
A rebel spokesman said more than 60,000 men have been involved in the push towards the capital, Kinshasa.

The new offensive is being launched on three fronts - at Gemena in the north, at Kabalo on the Congo River and at Moba in the east of the country.

[ image:  ]
Zimbabwe, which has provided soldiers to support President Kabila, has acknowledged the rebel offensive is taking place.

The rebels are reported to have gained many new recruits and more sophisticated weapons.

It is feared their new attack will undermine peace efforts led by the Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba.
Refugees report atrocities

Refugees fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo have told the BBC of widespread atrocities being committed against civilians by rebel soldiers.

Martin Dawes: This is a region where genocidal violence is routine
Since August the government of Laurent Kabila has been battling a rebel movement which is supported by Rwanda and Uganda.

The rebels accuse President Kabila, whom they helped to power, of being undemocratic.

Thousands of refugees are reported to be fleeing areas in the east of the country to seek shelter in Tanzania.

Perilous journey

The refugees are risking a perilous crossing of Lake Tanganyika, Africa's deepest lake, to escape their country, just like two years ago, during the the war which ousted the president.

[ image: Red Cross is ready for refugees - but when and how many?]
Red Cross is ready for refugees - but when and how many?
People from different parts of the Congo lakeside tell similar tales of young men being shot or villages being raided or brutal reprisals.

Within the territory they have taken, the rebels are battling groups of fighters known as Mai Mai. It is being alleged that each attack provokes a brutal reaction against civilians.

After a missionary group in the New Year said that 500 people were killed in one incident, the rebel leadership admitted to 10 civilians being killed by crossfire.

Eleven-year-old Jean-Marie, now being looked after by foster parents, begs to differ. He told BBC East Africa Correspondent Martin Dawes that soldiers came to his village at dusk and just started to fire - his mother and father were killed.

Hiding in the countryside

Anthony Mogar of the UN's refugee agency believes rebel patrols are now trying to stop people leaving; he has heard that two boats have been stopped and people taken off. No one is sure what has happened to them.

The Federation of the Red Cross, which helps to run the refugee camps, fears that a sudden slowdown in arrivals means that people are having to hide in the countryside and that many may be literally starving.

Young men found trying to escape are being killed. There are still hundreds a day being taken to the refugee camps.

Georg Nothelle of the Federation of the Red Cross said: "We are fully prepared for receiving 30,000 new refugees. The only problem is we don't know when they are coming and how many are coming. Whether they are coming at all. So it is a major problem for us."

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