Central, Eastern, & Southern Africa Database
Congo is the second largest state in Africa. The population is made of some 50 million of people from 200 separate ethnic groups, each of which is speaking a distinctly different language: nevertheless, only four have official status, while French is the government language. There is no majority ethnic group: there are only few larger ones, like Luba, Kongo, or Anamongo. Nevertheless, there is a major conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnicity, raging in eastern Congo already since several centuries.
The newest wars in Congo are extremely complex and brutal conflicts, the latest of which – fought with few interruptions ever since 1996 – is often named the “I African War”, and not seldom compared with the World War I. Its backgrounds can be tracked back for centuries, but in summary it can be said that it directly involved no less but nine African countries (including Angola, Burundi, Chad, Libya, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe), various fractions in Congo, and several non-African nations too. There are several reasons for such a massive international involvement, with each involved country having its own objectives. Another part of this conflict is connected with the fate of ethnic Banyarwandas, or – as called locally and in French – Banyamulenges. The history of Banyamulenges dates back in the 1920s, when the Belgian colonial authorities began importing labour force – consisting of Hutus and Tutsis – from Rwanda to Kivu area in Congo, and the mines in Katanga. Eventually, Banyamulenges became an important ethnic group in Belgian Congo: upon independence they were all given the Congolese nationality, yet during the civil war of 1960-1965 they found themselves in a conflict with local tribes. This they concluded successfully then they sided with the dictator Mobutu. Of course, the native Congolese could never forget what the Banyamulenges have done to them, and disputed their nationality. This dispute was never completely solved: eventually, in 1991 Mobutu changed his mind, created a new law about citizenship and over the night the Banyamulenges lost the Congolese nationality and all their rights. Clearly, they were not pleased about this situation.
During the 1980s - in what was then known as Zaïre under dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko - there were a number of rebellions regarding which very little documentation has surfaced. Clearly, most of these rebellions had degrees of success commensurate with their renown abroad: almost none at all.
Nevertheless, it is known that in February 1988 rebels infiltrated from Uganda attacked the garrison of the 41st Zairian Brigade, in Kisingani, and that ever since Mobutu started losing control over eastern parts of his realm.
Two years later numerous ethnic Tutsi troops of the Ugandan Army defected to Zaïre, from where they launched a rebellion against the regime in Kampala. This uprising was supported by Mobutu and eventually turned Uganda against Zaïre. Mobutu then aggravated the situation by interfering into the civil war in Rwanda, where he supported the Hutu rebels: this was something the Zairian Tutsis were not the least pleased about, and thus they started an insurgency against the Zairian dictator. However, Mobutu was not overly concerned: as long as he was supported by the USA (through CIA) and France, nothing really serious could happen to his regime.
With the end of the Cold War the equilibrium of the forces in whole Africa shifted, with France, Belgium and the USA reducing their support for the Mobutu regime. The early 1990s had seen a wave of democratization in Africa, and there was substantial internal and external pressure for democratization in Zaïre, and Mobutu promised reform. Aside from this, the inept handling of the economy had brought Zaïre to the verge of social chaos, with state-employees and the military not receiving their salary for months.
Mobutu officially ended the one-party system he had maintained since 1967, but ultimately was unwilling to implement broad reform, alienating allies both at home and internationally. The USA disengaged from supporting Mobutu, while several smaller groups of dissidents from eastern Zaïre – all having grandiose names like “Front National pour la Liberation du Congo” (National Front for the Liberation of he Congo - FNLC), the Parti de la revolution Populaire (Popular Revolutionary Party – PRP, led by Laurent Desiré Kabila - a small-time Marxist revolutionary who had excellent connections in Rwanda and Uganda, and enriched himself selling Congolese gold and was fighting against Mobutu already since 1963), and the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba (Congolse National Govement/Lumumba – MNCL, led by Nathaniel Bumba and Delphin Mulanda, veterans of Shaba I and II uprisings, from 1970s) – under influence of similar developments in Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda, joined into an alliance that was to present a solid political opposition against Mobutu. This new organization, the “Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo” (ADFL), was led by Laurent Désiré Kabila and relatively slow to grow due to poor infrastructure and problematic terrain in this part of the country.
The Zairian Army - Forces Armées Zaïroises (FAZ) - undertook nothing against the rebels, partially because of not being paid for months, but also because of rampant corruption within its chain of commands, as well as because mechanized units – which have had most of their equipment in inoperational condition due to lack of maintenance and spares - could hardly operate in the local terrain, and partially because the rebels were more usually concerned with their own survival than with fighting the official authorities. In fact, the poor condition of the military led to open revolt in some garrisons: on 22 September 1991, the troops of the 31st Airborne Brigade, stationed near N’Djili airfield, mutinied and occupied local installations. Other units of the joined them, together with inhabitants of several major towns. Looting and destruction spread, aimed mainly at the government offices and houses and enterprises belonging to the foreigners in Kinshasa, Lumumbashi, Kolwesi and Kisingani. In the last town, the mutineers were well-organized troops of the elite 41st Commando Brigade, trained by the Chinese.
Mobutu immediately requested help from France and Belgium, and on 23 September 1991, Paris launched “Operation Baumier”, with the aim of restoring order and evacuating foreign citizens from Kinshasa. Seme 450 troops from the 21st RIMA (Marine Infantry Regiment) were immediately deployed to N’Djili, which was meanwhile secured by loyal troops of the Service d’Action et de Renseignement Militaire of FAZ, the feared Military Intelligence Bureau, run by Gen. Mahale, fanatically loyal to the Mobutu family. The French troops arrived from Bangui, in Central African Republic, and were flown in by a dozen C.160 Transal transports of the ET.61 (61st Transport Wing). Another wave of French troops brought in a company of the 2nd REI (2nd Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment) from N’Djamena, in Chad. The Legionaires immediately moved into Kinshasa and secured the French embassy. Meanwhile, the loyal Zairian SARM forces and troops from the Division Special Présidentielle (DSP) – the praetorian palace guard – had cleared most of the rebels out of city centre.
Two days later, on 24 September 1991, Belgium launched Operation “Blue Beam”, deploying some 450 paras of the Régiment Para-Commando”, from Zaventem to Kinshasa. The troops were flown in on board chartered airliners from the national carrier SABENA, while vehicles and other heavy equipment followed in Belgian Air Force Lockheed C-130H Hercules transports of the 205 Squadron (15th Transport Wing). Given that the N’Djili airfield was not considered safe enough, Belgians reached an agreement with the government of Congo-Brazzaville, to land their troops there. This was the first time that the local government granted such permission to a Western nation ever since the removal of the Marxist pro-Soviet regime in Brazzaville.
More heavy equipment for Belgian troops followed on board USAF Lockheed C-141 StarLifter transports. The French then deployed two C-130Hs to Brazzaville as well, in addition to two Army Eurocopter SA.330 Puma helicopters. With a logistic base firmly in place, the Belgians began reinforcing their troops inside Zaïre. On 25 September, Belgian troops launched the Operation “Kir”, deploying additional paratroops directly to N’Dolo, the smaller airfield near Kinshasa.
In the meantime, the French continued deploying additional troops as well, notably elements from the 8th RPIMA and the 1st RIMA. A sizeable detachment of these was landed by French C.160s at the Kolwezi airport, taken in face of relatively light and sporadic resistance. On the same day, the French paras retook Kisingani, while Belgian C-130Hs and Boeing 727s brought another 600 troops into the country, followed by 250 soldiers that arrived on 26 September. On the later date, Belgian C-130Hs were used to deploy 250 troops and their equipment to Lumumbashi.
With this, the Belgians have had a total of 1.100 troops in the country, and the French some 1.000. With the main airport firmly secured, a decision was taken to evacuate foreign citizens. For this purpose the Belgian Air Force deployed half a dozen C-130Hs, while the French used at least ten C.160s, two C-130Hs, and a single Douglas DC-8. This sizeable force was augmented by four C-130 Hercules of the Portuguese Air Force.
Except in Mobutu’s decision to deny the Congolese citizenship to all the Banyamulenges', and the ADFL rebellion, the origin of the subsequent “I African War” was the civil war that raged through neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. Shortly after concluding peace negotiations that called for UN-peacekeeping force to be stationed in the country, the aircraft carrying (Hutu) President Habyarimana and Burundi’s President Ntaryamira (also Hutu) was shot down near Kigali, capital of Rwanda. Hutu and Tutsi extremists accused each other for this act and eventually the situation escalated so far that within the next few weeks between 500.000 and 1 million of Rwandan Tutsis were massacred. In response Tutsi rebels launched an offensive that culminated in the capture of Kigali, in June 1994, and resulted in an exodus of almost 1 million of Hutus into Zaïre.
The new Rwandese regime under Paul Kagame decided to retaliate against the extremists between the Hutu refugees in Zaïre. In collaboration with Zairian Hutus, namely, the Rwandan Hutus were swift to establish what was actually an own nation in the area, from where they – in cooperation with Zairian Army – mounted raids against the now Tutsi-ruled Rwanda, in September 1996. Barely a month later the Rwandan regime repulsed the Hutus and Zairians while providing militias organized by Banyamulenge dissidents with weapons and training.
The huge number of Hutu refugees continued creating problems in Zaïre: their camps were under control of different militias, which were aided by the Zairian government and repeatedly clashed not only with Rwandan troops, but also with different eastern Zairian rebels around Lake Kivu. It did not last long before there were open hostilities between Zaïre and Rwanda, escalating into cross-border shelling in Gisenyi area, by late October 1996.
To Rwandan’s regime it was clear that the Hutus in Zaïre had to be brought under control. Consequently, it began supporting the ADFL with training and weapons: the Zairian rebels were to become a military organization superior to the Zairian Army Units deployed in the area. Eventually, Paul Kagame brought the decision the organize an all-out revolt against Mobutu, then it was clear that without a change of the ruler in Kinshasa there would also be no end of support for the Hutus in Zaïre.
The Rwandans therefore started working on preparing an all-out revolt: the ADFL alliance was an ideal partner for such an enterprise. During the following two years the Banyamulenge militias joined the coalition, which – except for PRP, FNLC, and MNL - by 1998 included also the Alliance Democratique du Peuples (ADP, led by Deogratia Bugera), Movement Revolutionaire pour la Liberation de Zaïre (MLRZ, of Masasu Nindanga), Conseil National de Resistance pour la Democratique (CNRD, of Abdre Kisase Ngadu), and Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD, of Ernest Wamba de Wamba). Additionally, except by Rwanda, the ADFL was backed by governments of four other countries, including Uganda, Burundi, Angola, and Zambia, all of which were hostile to Mobutu because of his support for various rebel groups (for example, UNITA-rebels in Angola were supported by Mobutu already since the 1960s).
The stage was now set for the ultimate confrontation between all these parties.
The Force Aérienne Zairoise (Zairian Air Force – FAZ) was a relatively powerful, COIN-capable arm in the 1970s, but by the mid-1980s it started to suffer from the same problems like the rest of the Zairian military, including lack of funding and widespread corruption. Eventually, the FAZ was not maintained as a coherent fighting force any more: what was left was the nominal chain of command, with corrupt officers collecting all the pays for their units and not taking care about NCOs and troops. In fact, the extreme corruption between officers meant that Zairian airplanes were by far more frequently used for private “business” than for any other purposes. Under such circumstances not much was left of the FAZ by the late 1980s. Out of 14 originally delivered Mirage 5Ms, only seven were still intact by 1988: no less but five were reported as being lost in different accidents (including M401, lost in 1978; and M402, lost in 1983 in Chad). By the mid-1990s the last three examples were sold, together with the two surviving Mirage 5DMs (M201 and M203) – which were last seen in France, in 1996. There were also eight survivors out of 12 Aermacchi MB.326GBs and six MB.326Ks supplied by Italy in the mid-1970s: at earlier times they were operated by the 21st Wing of the 2nd Ground-Attack Group (2eme Groupement Aérien Tactique), from Kamina AB, but all became unserviceable by 1997. Similar was also the condition of the 1er Groupement Aérien, the FAZ division responsible for support, training and transport. Out of 12 SIAI-Marchetti SF.260MC trainers of the 131. Escadra at least eight were sold to the USA in the period 1985-1987: the four others appeared to have been stored inside hangars at Kinshasa.
Worst yet, by 1995 the FAZ could not even keep C-130s of the 19th Wing in operational condition. The last two examples, "9T-TCC" and "9T-TCF" were apparently sent to France for overhaul in 1996, but never returned and were ever since taken by the French Air Force. Only a pair of Buffalos from 22nd Wing, as well as a handful of Aérospatiale AS.332L Puma and Alouette III helicopters (the later were survivors of four purchased by the CIA for support of FMLN rebels in Angola, in 1975) of the 12ème Wing remained airworthy, and these were mainly used for VIP-transportation purposes.
Instead of working on improving the condition of his military, when Mobutu realized that he was about to face immense problems, in 1997, he – once again – attempted to recruit foreign mercenaries. For this purpose, two distinct military missions were sent abroad: one was led by the Office of the Prime Minister, while the other attempt was run through the Defence Ministry. Such an uncoordinated effort resulted later in immense problems. Most of hired mercenaries did not speak the same language and were armed with very different weapons. Paris therefore decided to offer help and better coordinate this effort. Having to keep a low profile, the French handed over this job to the Geolink Company, a private enterprise with strong relations to the French intelligence apparatus. Geolink hired a group of mainly French and Serbian mercenaries, including a group of Serbian pilots that were to operate aircraft and helicopters. Namely, Serbia agreed to deliver three SOKO J-21 Jastreb and one SOKO G-2 Galeb light strikers, as well as four MiG-21PFMs from Serbia, while three Mil Mi-24 (ASCC-Code “Hind”) were purchased in the Ukraine. All these aircraft were based at Gbadolite.
With few exceptions it remains unknown exactly what happened with each of these aircraft and how were they used after their arrival in Zaïre, in late 1997. The MiG-21s arrived in kit form and were put together by group of Russian or Ukrainian technicians at Gbadolite. In the case of Mi-24s it is known that one hit a power line and crashed on 27 March 1997, killing the crew of three and four passengers. The fate of at least one Jastreb was not much better: sometimes in 1997 one of the Serbian mercenaries, called Turcinovic, was killed while flying a foolish ultra-low-level pass over Gbadolite and clipping a lamp post with his wing. The wreckage of his aircraft fell directly into a column of young soldiers on a parade, killing dozens of them. Turcinovic apparently fell victim to a massive liquor problem all the Serbian mercenaries in Zaïre have had: their pilots are known to have flown drunk on a number of occasions, and he still had a hung-over from the night before...
What little is known about subsequent operations involving Serbian mercenaries in Congo is by no means a pleasant story. From few available reports it is obvious that there were immense problems with Serbs, who would not listen to anybody, were extremely undisciplined, and always operated at their own discretion. Although some of them were flying frequently, only a very small number of operational sorties was undertaken: obviously, the mercenaries were not especially motivated to risk their skin for Mobutu’s diamonds and gold.
The rest of the FAZ was to remain inactive: for all practical purposes it can therefore be said that this service was destined not to fight its last war, but to go down together with the rest of Mobutu’s empire.
To which degree were any other air forces involved in the following conflict, in 1997, remains unknown. Certainly, according to available information, only the Ugandan Army Air Force (UAAF) might have taken part in support of the rebels, even if there are traces that several countries were in the process of improving their military at the time. When a closer look at the UAAF’s condition of the time is taken even this is questionable. Namely, the UAAF was still in the process of re-construction after a complete disbandment resulting from defeat in the war against Tanzania, in the late 1970s. By 1996 the UAAF operated only a handful of light aircraft, including few survivors out of eight Swiss FFA AS.202-18A-1 Bravos (in service with the Central Flying School), two ex-Libyan SF.260ML trainers (for which there is no pictorial evidence yet) and six ex-Italian SF.260s, as well as a single SAAB MFI-17 Supporter.
Sometimes in the late 1980s or early 1990s the Libyans should have donated at least three Aero L-39 Albatrosses to Uganda: these were reported as wearing ex Libyan markings and UAAF serials “AF-701”, “AF-702”, and “AF-703”, but pictorial evidence remains unavailable.
The helicopter arm was in a slightly better condition, and is known to have seen some combat service against Ugandan rebels in Congo. Some sources claimed that in the late 1980s the Libyans donated three Mi-24s and between four and seven Mi-17s to Uganda. Such claims, however, were never confirmed: the only known Mi-24s that ever reached Uganda were supplied from Belarus (see further bellow), while most of the seven UAAF Mi-17s (at least two of which are Mi-172 saloon-helicopters) wear a green and grey camouflage pattern and were all purchased directly from Kazan Helicopters Company. Nevertheless, Uganda did receive three Agusta-Bell AB.206 helicopters from Libya. These were operated together with six AB.412s purchased from Italy. Although the AB.206s and AB.412s were almost all in-operational by 1997, at least the Mi-17s were all in reasonably good condition when - in the same year - Uganda also ordered two Mi-24s from Belarus, via the Consolidated Sales Corporation (CSC), a company registered on the British Virgin Islands. These arrived in early 1998, and were later to become a reason for a major scandal, when the Ugandans found out that the helicopters were not refurbished before delivery – even if this was specified in the contract. The UAAF had two smaller airfields in proximity of the Zairian border: Arua in the north, and Fort Royal in the south. Of course, Entebbe IAP (runways 12/30, 2.400m long, and 17/35, 3.658m long) remained the main air force base.
UAAF Aircraft and Helicopters in 1997
- AF-103, AS.202, last surviving Bravo regularly flown
- AF-104, AS.202, written off sometimes in 1996
- AF-201, MFI.17, stored in Entebbe due to lack of spares
- AF-302, AB.206, not in flying condition
- AF-303, AB.206, not in flying condition
- AF-305, AB.412, not in flying condition
- AF-306, AB.412, not in flying condition
- AF-309, AB.206, not in flying condition (ex-LARAF)
- AF-401, AB.412, not in flying condition
- AF-402, AB.412, not in flying condition
- AF-406, AB.412, in flying condition
- AF-50?, SF.260, sole operational example
- AF-504, SF.260, written off sometimes in 1996
- AF-506, SF.260, stored in Entebbe
- AF-001, Mi-172, white overall, cheat line in Ugandan colours from front fuselage over the whole boom, remaining operational
- no serial, Mi-172, green&green camouflage, remaining operational
- AF-601, Mi-8MTV-2, green&green camouflage, exhaust difusers, remaining operational
- AF-602, Mi-17, fate unknown
- AF-603, Mi-8MTV-2, light earth&grey camouflage, exhaust difusers, remaining operational
- AF-604, Mi-8/17, remaining operational
- AF-605, Mi-8MTV-5, green&grey camouflage, exhaust difusers, remaining operational
- AF-606, Mi-17, fate unknown
- AF-607, Mi-17, green&earth brown camouflage, remaining operational
- AF-701, L-39ZA, stored, reportedly never flown (ex-LARAF)
- AF-702, L-39ZA, stored, reportedly never flown (ex-LARAF)
- AF-703, L-39ZA, stored, reportedly never flown (ex-LARAF)
Notes about Ugandan Mi-17s
In addition to what is mentioned above about Ugandan Mi-17s, it is now certain that the UAAF has obtained additional helicopters of this type in the time-frame between 1998 and 2006. Namely, at least two UAAF Mi-17s and one Mi-172 are known to have been lost in various accidents since 1998, while several Mi-8/17MTV-5s were observed in service, all of them carrying serials known to have been worn by Mi-17s at earlier time.
The situation as of early 2006 was as follows:
- AF-601, Mi-8MTV-2, green&green camouflage, exhaust difusers, remaining operational
- AF-602, Mi-17, fate unknown
- AF-603, Mi-8MTV-2, light earth&grey camouflage, exhaust difusers, remaining operational
- AF-604, Mi-8/17, remaining operational
- AF-605, Mi-8MTV-5, green&grey camouflage, exhaust difusers, remaining operational
- AF-606, Mi-17, fate unknown
- AF-607, Mi-17, green&earth brown camouflage, remaining operational
- AF-611, Mi-8MTV-5, green&green camouflage, serial in yellow
- AF-615, Mi-8MTV-5, green&green camouflage, serial in black
For almost 30 years the Force Aérienne Rwandaise (“RwAF” – Rwandan Air Force) was a small transport and liaison arm, equipped with small helicopters and light transports. Established in 1962, when Rwanda gained independence from Belgium, the Force Aérienne Rwandese (RwAF) was originally equipped with two Douglas C-47s and six Aérospatiale SA.316 Alouette IIIs. There was intention to establish a small jet force of attack trainers, and in 1974 three Aermacchi AM-3C utility light planes were purchased. But, such plans were abandoned very soon for lack of funds, and in the late 1970s the RwAF was equipped and trained on French helicopters, with only two STOL piston-engined Socata R.235 Guerrier armed trainer and general purpose airplanes, seven Aérospatiale SA.316 Alouette III, six Aérospatiale SA.342L Gazelles, and at least one AS.365 Dauphin. Other aircraft in use during 1980s were two Britten-Norman Islanders, two Nord 2501 Noratlas, and two Aérospatiale AS.350B Ecureuils.
During the civil war that raged from 1990 until 1994, the RwAF fell apart, having lost most of its transport- and training aircraft in crashes, shot down or destroyed on the ground. The helicopter force and Rwandan personnel suffered some losses as well and were subsequently scattered. The sole surviving Noratlas (“9XY-GY”) was flown out to Dar-Es-Salam shortly before the outbreak of rebellion in Rwanda, and apparently abandoned there (last seen in 1996 and again in 1998). Only three Gazelles seem to have survived and they were seen – together with two Mi-24s – at Kigali IAP, in 1997, all painted in the – for RwAF – standard camouflage pattern. Two were then noticed at Goma, in Zaire, in August 1997, already with provisional Congolese codes – 9T-HG3 and 9T-HG5 (“G” in their serial stood for “Gazelle”, “H” for Helicopter), which indicated that it is possible that up to five Gazelles were given to Kabila. A number of other Rwandan helicopters were seen in South Africa and Swaziland, indicating the involvement of South African companies and mercenaries in the Rwandan civil war. For example, the Gazelle coded “10K12” was seen in green camouflage pattern after being overhauled in Lanseria. At the same place also a Dauphin was sighted – full of holes from hand-fired weapons.
Sometimes in 1997 the RwAF obviously received the first Mi-24s, most likely from Belarus (and via Syria). Apparently, at least three Mi-24s were purchased, of which two – RAF-0102 and RAF-0110 – were camouflaged in Sand and Dark Earth, while the third example – sighted in 2000 in Kigali – was camouflaged “Green on Green”. How far were Rwandan Mi-24s ready to take part in the war in 1997, however, remains unknown: certain is only that at least the two Earth & Sand painted examples survived long enough to be photographed in Kigali after the war, in 2001.
Finally, the RwAF should have acquired a number of Mi-8s and Mi-17s from different sources by 1997, of which one was identified as Mi-17MTV “RAF-0403”, without the landing ramp of the MTV-5. Another example was sighted abandoned in 2003 at Lungi; additional Mi-17s were to follow, but more about them at a later stage.
The first ADFL attacks against Hutus in Zaïre occurred already in October and November 1996 near the Lake Tanganyika. In January 1997 the Zairian Army launched a counteroffensive against the rebels, but this was swiftly fought down and Kabila’s forces then advanced on Kisingani. Nevertheless, more than 9.000 civilians died in battles that raged from Goma and Bukavu, via Kisingani to Mbandaka, most were Hutu refugees from neighbouring Rwanda, gunned down by rebel troops.
In the following weeks Rwanda deployed several battalions into Zaïre: these were put under nominal command of the ADFL leader, Laurent Kabila, who was less a military commander than a leadership figure. It is believed that the actual mastermind of the following campaign was Gen. Nindaga Masasu, top commander of Kabila’s troops, together with James Kabari, a Tutsi of uncertain nationality who speaks fluent Swahili and broken English (languages used in Uganda) – but no French or any of languages used in Congo. There are reports that some of rebel military leaders were trained by US military personnel in Rwanda, but it remains unknown how far is this truth. Certain is that in total Masasu and Kabari had a core of some 2.500 lightly armed but well-trained fighters, reinforced by some 4.000 foreign troops.
Against them Mobutu should have been able to put up 59.000 soldiers and police officers, equipped with 40 tanks, some artillery and multiple rocket launchers, few transport aircraft and two Mi-24s. Nevertheless, most of Zairian Army’s equipment was not in working condition, morale was bellow all acceptable levels, and discipline non-existing. Under such conditions it was actually impossible for the FAZ to cooperate with the rest of the Zairian military.
The joint force of rebels, Rwandan and Ugandan troops therefore had little problems and in preparing and launching a swift campaign that remains poorly documented because the rebel leaders did not permit any reporters to accompany them. In exchange for supporting the ADFL, Rwandan troops and their Congolese Tutsi allies were given a free hand to go after the Hutu refugees so long as they also contributed to toppling Mobutu. Rebel officers who opposed this policy were removed: Andre Kisase Ngandu was gunned down by Rwandan Tutsi troops near Goma on 6 January 1998, for example.
The offensive was launched on 4 October 1997, with rebels crossing the Ruzizi River from Rwanda and attacking a hospital and a Congolese Army base near Lemera, a village between Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika. The assault developed along a simple formula: the rebels would first infiltrate their troops inside the targeted town or village, and then attack from several directions simultaneously, supported by mortar fire, confusing Mobutu’s troops and leaving them one escape route. The resistance in Lemera collapsed within few hours and the government troops – most of whom had not been paid since over a year – fled into the Fizi region, inhabited by the Bembe tribe, where many were killed by the locals in revenge for previous atrocities. On 24 October Uvira fell: the rebels treated residents well, but separated Hutu refuges from the crowd and subsequently massacred over 1.600 of them.
Only six days later the rebels advanced on Bukavu, almost 180km away, on the short of Lake Kivu. Underway they attacked one UN-protected refugee camp after the other, Meanwhile, 700 rebels opened another front, sneaking into Congo near Goma and attacking Kibumba refugee camp, in which some 200.000 Hutus lived, and which was defended by Mobutu’s Presidential Guard and Hutu militia. During a short but sharp clash the Guards and Hutus suffered heavy casualties, and then left the battlefield, causing the refugees to flee towards Goma where they found shelter in next massive camp, Mugunga. However, Goma was captured by rebels already on 1 November, then meanwhile Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundian regulars entered Zaïre near Ruzizi, south of Bukavu, commanded by a Rwandan Colonel, and supported by Rwandan gunboats. The subsequent attack on Mugunga camp resulted in one of the largest “spontaneous repatriations” in recent history, as 600.000 Hutus fled back into Rwanda, and also ended the talks about possible deployment of a UN-peacekeeping force to Congo.
Further 400km down the road towards west, in Bunia, the Zairian Army concentrated several units – including the 31st Para Brigade, one of the few remaining functioning Army units. The Rwandan troops reached the area by mid-December, followed by Ugandans and rebels. The paras checked the rebel attack, but then run out of ammunition: without them the defence of the city collapsed within only a few days: Bunia fell on 24 December 1997. There was some bickering about future operations at this point: Rwanda was only interested in establishing a buffer zone along the border and stop the advance. But, Angolans were interested in toppling Mobutu and pushed for a capture of Kinshasa. By mid February, a new agreement was reached and the advance continued towards West from Bunia, and northwest from Bukavu. For this purpose the ADFL’s force was reinforced by a number of Katangese troops led by Angolan officers, deployed to Bukavu aboard transport aircraft of the Angolan Air Force. Additional Angolan troops entered Zaïre from the south.
Mobutu’s Army was meanwhile concentrating at Kisingani, 600km down the road from Bunia, where a “great lightning offensive” was to be launched. Instead of organizing supplies for their forces, however, the leading officers were competing who would lead the counterattack. So it happened that when reinforcements arrived from Kinshasa there was insufficient food for them. A planeload of fish that was to be used as food for troops sent to Kisingani aboard a FAZ Caribou was sold by the crew of the transport. From that moment every Zaïrian soldier in the area had to take care about himself. Serb mercenaries, already infamous for their brutality in the Bosnian war, terrorized the local population to get food, looting stores through the city. Without surprise, when the rebels launched their attack on Kisingani, on 13 March 1998, the locals led them through the forest around the Army positions: the city was encircled and fell two days later.
With the northern Congo firmly in rebel hands the battlefield shifted towards the south: within barely three months the coalition of rebels and foreign troops captured one third of Congo. The pace of advance was now even increased: an advance guard of 300 Rwandan and Banyamulenge troops was sent ahead to seize one town after the other along the road to Kinshasa. The mop-up of the areas behind them was left to the rebels. The tactics was risky but the results were excellent: on 9 April the key mining town of Lumumbashi was captured after the neighbouring Zambia granted the rebels free passage so they could attack from an unexpected direction. By 30 April Kikwit fell as well – more than 1.000km through thick jungle from where the rebels started on 1 March 1998.
The Zairian Army’s last stand – a bridge over the Bombo River, 100km east of Kinshasa – fell on 15 May. Although the Army C-in-C, Gen. Marc Mahele Lieko Bokungu, promised to defend it at all cost, a group of 600 rebels sneaked across the river and attacked from the rear, causing a complete collapse of the position. Weakened by illness, and concluding that the negotiations with Kabila – held in Pointe Noire, in Congo-Brazzaville – made his shaky position clear to his opponents, the next day Mobutu flew out of Kinshasa after Mahele informed him he would fight no more: General was shot by Mobutu’s loyalists on the same day. In the early morning of 17 May 1998 rebel patrols entered the capital. Due to the support of the African Great Lakes states, and given no sign of external aid for Mobutu, the Zairian Army joined Kabila, who formally took power on May 20, 1997, simultaneously renaming Zaïre into the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The country that Kabila took over was in a terrible state. The debt was estimated at around $16 billion. Lacking a solid political base but being a new leader in a state that knew nothing but terror from the top political leadership ever since existing, the new president had little choice but to play the “strong man”. He quickly alienated potential foreign investors by breaking agreements with major mining companies; then there was a dispute between Kabila and Etienne Tshisekedi – leader of the UDP – who demanded the position of Prime Minister, and soon enough also massive accusations for continuing corruption and incompetence of Mobutu’s regime appeared as well. It did not take long before the US State Department officially refused to continue support for the Kabila’s regime.
Understandably, Kabila had problems with former functionaries of Mobutu’s regime (so-called “Mobutuists”), foremost the former Zairian security police chief Gen. Baramoto, former special forces commander Gen. Nzimbi and former minister of defence Admiral Mavua. All three escaped to South Africa, from where they were organizing armed resistance against Kabila regime. Under supervision of Baramoto, the Mobutuists established connections to Congolese Tutsis, Rwandese and Ugandans. Later on Baramoto played a key role in the capture of Kitona AB, with some support from former Zairian troops stationed there.
Increasing his problems, however, Kabila refused to take any steps against Hutu rebels, which alienated Rwanda and Uganda: they were financing and backing the whole war against Mobutu (largely by Congo-Zairian diamonds), but now the Congolese President was demanding their troops to leave the country. In fact, Kabila went so far to issue official complaints when in July 1998 the Rwandans lost patience with Hutus in Congo and launched a deadly operation of ethnic cleansing over the border. Within a month more than half of the remaining Hutu refugees were forced out of their camps and herded back into Rwanda; over 200.000 died during this “operation”. On the other side, Kabila’s over-reliance on the Rwandans for political and military control was a major reason for other members of the ADFL-alliance accusing him of being a puppet of Kigali. Never being in control of all the forces officially under command of the ADFL, Kabila eventually felt so insecure, that on 14 July 1998 he removed his top military commander, James Kabari, and replaced him by his own son, Joseph Kabila.
Opposing the presence of foreign troops on Congolese soil on 27 July Kabila finally ordered all Rwandan and Ugandan military personnel to leave the country immediately. The Rwandan objectives and reasons for their presence in Congo were clear, and the aggressive regime in Kigali was not to ignore such an act. The Ugandan government could not act accordingly either: Kampala considered it as ultimately important to have military bases in Congo, then from there it was sending support for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army involved in a civil war with the Islamic regime – and action that saw some US and British support.
What was left of the ADFL alliance now began to fall apart: the decision that was to be used as the main reason for the outbreak of a new war was Kabila’s order issued on 1 August 1998, with which all the Tutsi (i.e. Banyamulenge) officials were removed from his government. Two of Kabila’s closest aides were Tutsis, however: the foreign minister Bizima Karaha and the Presidential Affairs Minister, Deogratias Bugera. Both were forced to leave Congo – thus increasing the number of exiled former VIPs. In their place Kabila put his personal aides and tribal followers from Katanga Province. Gaean Kakudji and Mwenze Kongolo, two of Kabila’s cousins, became ministers of interior and justice, respectively. The head of the national police, the governor of the central bank, his ambassador-at-large and all the new members of the presidential guard were from Katanga. Clearly, most of Kabila’s aides saw this effort of centralizing the control over Congo as evidence for president’s corruption: they saw no other solution but to launch a new rebellion.
The reaction of what was now opposition to Kabila’s regime was immediate. On 2 August 1998 some 16.000 Banyamulenge soldiers of the 10 Brigade of the Congolese Army (FAC), based in Kisingani, mutinied. Their uprising was directly supported by Rwanda and Uganda: in fact, the Congolese Tutsis depended on Rwandan military presence for protection against hostile armed groups. On 4 August Rwandan officers responsible for training of former Mobutu troops staged an uprising in Kitona. The fighting in that part of the country spread within hours to the towns of Muanda and Banana, near Cabinda, where the US oil company Chevron operated one of the most lucrative oil concessions in the world. By 6 August the uprising spread into other parts of Congo as the Rwandan Tutsi officers started mobilizing Banyamulenges to establish the main fighting force against Mobutu. Goma and Bukavu in the Kivu Province fell almost immediately under rebel control, and fierce fighting broke out in Uvira and Kisingani. In the west, there was an uprising in the Congo’s outlet to the Atlantic Ocean and along the border to the oil-rich Angolan enclave of Cabinda.
In Kinshasa there were bitter battles around two military bases on the outskirts of the city, which erupted after Kabila issued short-to-kill orders against all Rwandans. More than 1.000 Rwandan and ethnic Tutsi troops based there disappeared in the surrounding jungle: they were to cause immense problems to Kabila’s regime. Due to the widespread basing of Rwandan troops and immense concerns of Banyamulenges for their own safety, the uprising spread very fast within only a few days into eastern Congo, where 5.000 additional troops mutinied, captured and looted several towns, river ports, and airfields. Simultaneously, Rwanda claimed a substantial part of eastern Congo, with Burundi – the troops of which were deployed in Congo as well – following the suit.
The new war in Congo was so far the most complex of any armed conflicts ever fought there. In fact, it became so complex that there is certainly a need to explain in some detail at least the most important participants.
- Congolese Army (FAC)
The FAC was by August 1998 largely consisting of former Mobutu’s troops. They were definitely the most unusual among all of the Congolese fighters involved in this war solely due to the fact that all of them received proper military training. The discipline in the whole FAC was non-existing, and especially in August 1998 most of the Army was on a verge of collapse. Nevertheless, several times during the following fighting they were to prove that – if properly led and regularly paid - they could constitute a force to be reckoned with.
- Katangan Tigers
Tigers were originally formed by Moise Tschombe’s former Katangan gendarmes who went into exile with their families in Angola, in the 1960s. There they received military training within the MPLA, but were demobilized after a ceasefire with UNITA was signed in 1992. Tigers were supporting Kabila already during the war 1996-1997, and - most of them - continued doing so during the new war as well.
However, their military leadership was divided: the wing led by Henri Mukatshung Mwambu and Gen. Vindicien “Mufu” Kiyana, members of the “Front de Libération National du Congo” (FNLC), which fought in two Shaba uprisings; and the wing led by Dr. Emila Ilunga, former PRP-representative in the EU who regarded himself as political leader of the FNLC. Ilunga cooperated with Gen. Jean Delphin Muland (or Mulanda), the nominal head of the Katangan Tigers, imprisoned by Kabila after a disagreement in 1997.
Eventually, both wings of the Tigers were to side with Kabila.
- People’s Militia (Different Groups)
Known as the “Défense civile et populaire (“People’s Civil Defence”), this militia was created by Kabila during 1998, and became foremost present in Kinshasa area. Their participation in the war afterwards remains of unknown quality. Considering how fierce this war became it is not very likely that any of People's Militia groups was ever especially effective or successful.
- Driven Out: Banyamulenge
Although frequently claimed to the be initiators of the uprising from August 1998, the Banyamulenge were actually an instrument. With their right to Congolese nationality being contested and their strained relations with other ethnic groups they generated a deep feeling of insecurity, which was confirmed when Kabila requested Rwandan troops to leave the country. They mutinied actually already in the early 1998, when Kabila’s regime attempted to disperse them throughout the Congolese Army to serve alongside former soldiers of Mobutu’s army. However, almost simultaneously also the relations between Banyamulenge and Rwandans deteriorated so that the Banyamulenge eventually allied with Burundi. Those of them stationed in Kinshasa were to suffer extremely heavy losses early during the new war. The others were fighting with almost every fraction involved in this war.
- Rebels: RCD (or “ADFL-bis”)
Most of the rebels that were to fight against Kabila formed under the aegis of the “Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie” (Congolese Assembly for Democracy - RCD). In August 1998 the RCD was a lose organisation of disparate persons and their followers, a core of which could be called “the disillusioned of the first liberation”. The leadership of the RCD in 1998 included the “politicians”, most of which had no serious political base in Congolese society:
- Bizima Karaha (a Tutsi from South Kivu), former Minister of Foreign Affairs under Kabila
- Shambuyi Kalala (Kasai), formerly in charge of propaganda for the ADFL under Kabila
- Emile Ilunga (Katanga), a wanna-be president of the political wing of the Katangan Tigers, removed from power by Kabila in spring of 1997, later RCD “Minister” of health and social affairs
- Moise Nyarugabo (a Tutsi from South Kivu), former Secretary-General of ADFL, sidelined in June 1998.
It cannot be said that the RCD had a coherent fighting force during this war: there was a large number of very different local militias and different bands fighting for it. Some of these, however, were led by excellent officers and proved very dangerous even for - correspondingly - well-trained professional Angolan and Zimbabwean troops.
Kabila was also confronted by many members of former Mobutu’s regime, foremost Arthur Zahidi Ngoma, a lawyer known for his work in the field of human rights and a staunch opponent of Mobutu and Kabila, and Wamba dia Wamba, a professor of history living in Tanzania. Like many other Mubutuists they both eventually sided with the RCD. This mixture of different militias and armed groups they led was to deliver some exceptionally heavy blows against Kabila's regime early during the new war.
- Rebels: MLC
The "Mouvement de libération Congolais" was actually a private army, established and trained in 1998 by Ugandans, and led by millionaire businessman Jean-Pierre Bemba as well as Col. Amur. Based in NE Congo (HQ in Gemena), it included some of the best-trained and disciplined fighters that were to participate in the war on the side opposing Kabila. Not of special importance early during the war, with some Libyan support the MLC developed into a powerful force of 20.000, that was to fight bitter battles in the Gbadolite area in 2000 and 2001.
- Rebels: UDI
Alexis Tambwé and Kengo wa Dondo (later was the former Director of Customs) founded and presided the “Union des democrats independents” (Union of Independent Democrats – UDI) that eventually sided with RCD-rebellion.
- Rebels: UPDS & PDSC
The “Union pour la démocratie et le progress social” (Union for Democracy and Social Progress – UPDS), and the “Parti démocrate-social Chrétien” (Christian Social-Democratic Party – PDSC), favoured political negotiations instead of an armed rebellion. Over the time, however, some of them joined the rebellion (those that did not were either concerned with their own security or did not want to be associated with the Rwandans).
- Foreign Rebels: Ugandan Guerrilla Movements
Time and again also other, foreign rebel organisations became involved in the war in Congo between them three Ugandan guerrilla movements: “Allied Democratic Forces” (ADF, active in the Ruwenzori mountains), “West Nile Bank Front” (followers of former dictator Idi Amin Dada), and “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA, mainly members of the Acholi ethnic group, frustrated by the loss of power since Museveni’s victory in 1986, foremost known for their extreme cruelty).
The new rebellion initially appeared to be a re-run of the one from 1997, with the difference that this time the rebels had not only the advantage of knowing their enemy very well, but also of being well deployed around the country. Once again under Rwandan supervision, the rebels deployed the same tactics like against Mobutu’s forces the year before: they would send a weak spearhead to attack the actual objective of their interest in a bold and – frequently – shockingly swift move, and then follow-up by the main force that was to mop-up the conquered area. Gome, Bukavu, Uvira and Kisingani were almost immediately under their control; other towns fell in rapid succession, and then they prepared a master plan to take Kabila by surprise: the rebels hijacked a passenger aircraft, put over 100 fighters on it and flew it to Kitona, in SW Congo, to spread the mutiny. The airfield was swiftly secured in cooperation with local Mobutuists in a terrible battle that shocked the government in Kinshasa.
The situation for Kabila worsened significantly by 13 August, when the western corridor to Atlantic was cut off by rebels, threatening a catastrophic food crisis in Kinshasa. The port of Matadi and the hydro-electric power station Inga – which supplies electricity to Kinshasa – were captured with little fighting, cutting off all connections between Kinshasa and Atlantic. Condition of forces loyal to the government in the eastern Congo was even poorer, the rebels claiming to have “liberated” Shabunda (100km west of Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu) and Aru (100km south of the Sudanese border) by mid-August. With his military falling apart and uncertain about the loyalty of remaining troops under his control, Kabila could do little but abandon Kinshasa, and withdraw to his power-base in the province of Katanga - and request help from his remaining foreign friends, attempting to secure domestic support by whipping up nationalist feelings while simultaneously requesting military assistance from other African countries against Rwandan and Ugandan aggression.
The rebellion thus swiftly exploded into a new war, with the fate of the new Congolese president apparently being already sealed. As they were now well-positioned east and west of Kinshasa, the situation of Kabila became so critical that on 17 August he left the capital aboard a Mi-8 helicopter of unknown origin, together with most of his government, retreating into Katanga Province, in southern Congo.
Zimbabwe and Angola were swift to offer their aid to Kabila, then both countries were interested in his survival – for their own reasons. Angola mainly because Kabila cut off UNITA’s supply-lines from Congo when he came to power; Zimbabwe because Kabila regime owed it $93 million for weapons and equipment bought between 1996 and 1998. Other countries were to follow.
By 1998 the AFZ was actually not in the best position to fight a war, then it was flying relatively old aircraft and helicopters and experiencing quite some problems with spares acquisition due to lack of funding. No less but 85% of contemporary Zimbabwean defence budget of barely $250 million was spent for pays of the professional army. What was left was simply insufficient for taking proper care about equipment, not to talk about purchasing new. Nevertheless, the AFZ has meanwhile survived the lengthy period when there was a considerable lack of qualified pilots and technical personnel and the AFZ depended on foreign support for remaining operational. In fact, by 1998 the AFZ commander, Air Marshal Perence Shiri, and his deputy, Air-Vice Marshal Henry Muchena, were in command of probably the most competent flying service in sub-Saharan Africa, staffed with well-trained, experienced, disciplined, and courageous personnel. Consequently, the AFZ entered this war as the best-equipped and trained of all involved flying services.
In 1998 the No.1 Squadron AFZ was flying five ex-Kenyan Hawker Hunter FGA.Mk.9s (out of 12 delivered), a single Hunter FGA.Mk.9 left behind from the former Rhodesian Air Force, and one (out of three delivered) ex-Kenyan Hunter T.Mk.81s.
The No.2 AFZ Squadron was flying 12 BAe Hawk T.Mk.60/60As (out of 13 supplied in two batches – one of eight, in 1980, and one of five in 1992), which are used as strike-fighters – equipped with AIM-9B Sidewinder AAMs, Mk.82-series bombs, and Hunting BL.755 cluster-bomber units (CBUs), as well as launchers for unguided rockets – but also for advanced training. The same unit comprised also the Jet Flying Training School that was training new pilots for flying not only Hunters, but also eleven Chengdu F-7II/IINs and two Guizhou FT-7BZs operated by the No.5 Squadron. The aircraft were originally delivered in two batches after being test-flown and inspected at the CATIC factory in China. A group of 15 Chinese experts – including two test-pilots – arrived in Zimbabwe to re-assemble and test-fly them. The Chinese issued a warranty for 12 months or 150 flying hours for them: a seven-member technical team was attached to the AFZ during this period. By 1998 only six or seven F-7s remained fully mission-capable, and the No.5 Squadron had approximately a dozen of qualified pilots. Besides, at the time the war in Congo was to break out Zimbabwe was in the middle of negotiations with China for an additional batch of 12 F-7s.
The AFZ furthermore consisted of the No.3 Squadron, flying 12 CASA C.212-200 and six Britten-Norman BN-2A Islander light transports: these simple and robust aircraft have already seen heavy service, and were to see even more of this in Congo. Transport and liaison were also duties of the No.7 Squadron, equipped with Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette IIIs (including ex-Portuguese Air Force- and Romanian IAR-built examples), as well as of the No.8 Squadron, equipped with Agusta-Bell 412SPs. However, the later unit was soon to play a significant role in the war in Congo, as it was only recently equipped with the most recent addition to the AFZ: six Mi-35 helicopters (including two Mi-35Ps). Paid for by Kabila’s supporters these were bought from Russia for reported $26.35 million. The first AFZ Mi-35-crews were trained at Thornhill AB, in Gweru, by Russian instructors. CO of this unit was Sqn.Ldr. Mukotekwa.
The final two AFZ units, the No.4 and No.6 Squadrons were equipped with Cessna FTB.337Bs and SF.260 Genets of different sub-variants, including SF.260M/TP/Ws, respectively.
Despite many attempts to find out precise details about the AFZ deployment in Congo, from 1998 until 2001, it largely remains unclear to which degree was which unit involved. The main reason for this is that the reporting about exact types used in this war is very poor, but also that the exact details about condition of Zimbabwean and Congolese aircraft remain unclear. What appears to be certain is that in mid-August 1998 the AFZ deployed between five and six F-7s, most of C.212s, and something like a dozen of helicopters – including Alouettes, Bell 412s and Mi-35s – to Congo. All were flown by Zimbabwean pilots.
Later on, after receiving an urgent shipment of spares from an unknown source, the AFZ apparently deployed some of Hawks as well, but at the start of the new war these were reported as not in flyable condition. It was therefore so that the AFZ contingent in Congo in August and September 1998 consisted of flights from No.3, No.5, No.7 and No.8 Squadrons, while a flight from No.2 Squadron was to follow later. The involvement of other units cannot be definitely confirmed, but it is sure that Zimbabwe chartered also a number of civilian transport aircraft for swift deployment of its troops into the war area.
In addition to Zimbabwe, Angola also deployed a significant part of its air force. In fact, numerically, the Fuerza Aérea Nacional (“FAN” – as the Angolan Air Force was renamed in 1993) was the largest service to become involved in this war. Technically, and when it comes to quality of personnel, however, its situation was far from ideal. Although operating a total of no less than six Air Regiments with 16 squadrons, by 1998 the FAN was left with barely 15 MiG-23s, nine Su-22s, four Su-25s, around a dozen of MiG-21s, six L-39s, and around a dozen of Mi-25s and Mi-35s in operational condition. There was a large number of derelict airframes, many of which were used as sources of spares. It was therefore not surprising when the FAN failed to deploy anything more but elements from three of its units to Congo.
The first of these were eight MiG-21MFs of the 25th Air-Combat Fighter Regiment (ACFR). Split into two Flights, simply known as “Flight One” and “Flight Two”, these fighters were deployed to Kitona AB, almost as soon as this was secured by Angolan ground units. For most part they were flown in combat by Angolan pilots, but the 25th ACFR brought with it also ten “foreign advisors” – foreign mercenary pilots, one of which was a former pilot of the JRViPVO (Yugoslav Air Force) known to have remained with FAN in Congo until the year 2000.
The 25th ACFR also deployed five MiG-23MLs to Congo, albeit there are completely conflicting reports about whereabouts of their deployment: according to some sources (including eyewitnesses), they were based at Kinshasa-Ndolo airfield; according to others they were attached to Zimbabwean forces and based in the east of the country, probably in Lumumbashi. Furthermore, the FAN also had a flight of few (perhaps six) Su-25Ks of the 26th ACFR – plus six L-39s - based in Cabinda, and a mixed flight of Mi-24s and Mi-25/35s of the 22nd Helicopter Combat Attack Regiment (HCAR) and few Mi-8/17s of the 22nd HCAR deployed to Congo. Almost nothing is known about possible operations of these units, however. Of course, the Angolans have also used a considerable number of transport aircraft during this war, most of which belonged to TAP, a semi-military national carrier.
Finally, the Congolese Air Force (DRCAF) – or what was left of the former FAZ – was brought back to life during the war as well. Initially it had only the two surviving Mi-24s (including one Mi-24P), and some Mi-17s as well as other helicopters. At least as important was the fact that – with Zimbabwean and South African support – the DRCAF was able to make three MB.326s of the former 2° GAT/21st Wing FAZ found at Kinshasa operational again and that there were used the DRCAF was able to make three MB.326s operational. Later on the Angolans reportedly found at least three stored SF.260s of the former 131 Escadra FAZ at Kitona AB. These were overhauled with help of AFZ technicians and the stocks of spares found at this airfield and then rushed into service with the Zimbabwean Air Force.
Talking about mercenaries, it should be mentioned that – overall – the number of foreign pilots involved in this war remained low. Except for ten MiG-21-pilots that served with FAN, there was a larger group of Russian instructors present in Zimbabwe at the time: nevertheless, only few of them went to Congo with Mi-35s of the No.8 Squadron, in the year 2000, and then flew only very few combat sorties.
Regardless what the Angolan, Congolese and Zimbabwean air forces were flying during this war, it is important to note that the rebels, Rwandans and Ugandans soon became well-known for reporting of being attacked from the air by almost everything, from “Zimbabwean MiGs”, via “Mi-17 jet fighters”, “Mil-3” or “M-135 gunships”, “helicopters equipped with flame-throwers”, not to talk about “South African Mirage F.1s” or “USAF B-52” bombers, or whatever else. Especially the term “Zimbabwean MiG” became very widespread and well-known in the public – in fact so much so that even Angolan or Namibian helicopters were designated as such! While such reporting might appear laughable on the first view, it is actually not surprising – considering the significant number of different aircraft and helicopter types deployed during the following war, but also the general lack of knowledge about aircraft identification by the locals. After all, one should not forget that even professional US-troops deployed in Iraq tend to call any type of Iraqi aircraft they captured a “MiG”.
It is also important to note that almost all the air forces involved in this war were to be considerably reinforced during the following four years of fighting. More details to this topic later on.
While Kabila was leaving Kinshasa, the Zimbabweans were already streaming in, launching the operation “Sovereignty Legitimacy”. Starting on 10 August, and using Il-76 transports chartered in Russia and the Ukraine, but also some AirZaire passenger aircraft. Within two days they deployed 900 troops to the Congolese capital. Also involved in this “air bridge” were CASA C.212 transports of the No.3 Squadron AFZ. In days-long brutal battles with some 1.000 Rwandan troops and rebel fighters stationed in Kinshasa, the Zimbabweans established a secure perimeter around the Kinshasa-Ndolo airport (runway 08/26, 1.680m long). Subsequently they also brought Kinshasa-Ndjili IAP (runway 06/24, 4.700m long), some 15km outside the city. Working feverishly, they then organized deployment of their helicopters – including Alouettes of No.7 and AB.412s of No.8 Squadron – there as well. The first “African” intervention of this size thus had a good basis to start with.
Over 1.000km on the other side of Congo, and far away from Kinshasa, the second prong of the Zimbabwean intervention was meanwhile in organization. With official permission from Zambia the Zimbabweans rushed their troops along the only good road in that part of Africa, from Harare to Lusaka, via Kabwe and Chingola to Lumumbashi, in southern Katanga. Entering Congo in a fighting march the Zimbabwean Army troops swiftly established several bases along this communication. The road was to become the main supply route for their troops in eastern Congo: as the rebels advanced on Mbuji-Mayi, the so-called “Diamond Capital” of Congo, and already established their control over the surrounding area, the road became immensely important for Zimbabwe. In fact, the Zimbabweans stampeded towards Mbuji-Mayi, eventually deploying so many of their troops along this route that many Zambian citizens complained the road would now be “owned” by Zimbabwean military.
Together with Zimbabwean troops, six or seven F-7s and additional Alouette and AB.412 helicopters were deployed to the Lumumbashi IAP (runway 07/25, 3.200m long), and then on a similar installation near Mbuji-Mayi (runway 17/35, 2.000m long). The AFZ also operated from the small airfield near Manono, some 350km to the east, which was used as the main supply hub for Zimbabwean troops deployed in Maniema and Sud-Kivu Provinces, opposite to the border with Rwanda. From here, AFZ F-7s were to fly dozens of combat air patrols in the following months, attempting in vain to intercept one of many helicopters and transport aircraft known to have been used to bring supplies and troops from Rwanda and Burundi to Congo.
Despite swift deployment of significant Zimbabwean contingents, the situation was not yet stabilized, then elsewhere the rebels were winning one battle after the other. In fact, on 22 August 1998, Bizma Karaha, Kabila’s former foreign minister, appeared in Goma (a city on the northern shores of Lake Kivu, directly on the border to Rwanda) together with Bugera and the long-time anti-Mobutu leader and former UNESCO official, Arthur Zaidy Ngoma. They declared themselves for “civilian political leadership of the rebellion”. Karaha, presenting himself as the “foreign minister” of RCD-rebels, claimed that “two Zimbabwean jet fighters were shot down during battles on western front”, specifically between the port of Matadi and Mwanda. The fact was, however, that at the time the AFZ did not have any fighter-bombers deployed in that part of Congo: certainly, even Zimbabwean Hunters – if these would have been operational at the time – could not reach so far even if flying from bases in Zambia.
These “Zimbabwean jet fighters” Karaha was talking about were actually either Angolan MiG-21s of Flights 1 or 2 meanwhile deployed in Kinshasa, or MiG-23MLs and Su-25s. The Angolan Air Force is known to have deployed a number of these at Cabinda IAP, in the Angolan Cabinda enclave, already since the Angolan intervention in Congo-Brazzaville, in October 1997. The Angolans were certainly in action inside Congo by the time, then on 20 August there were the first reports about a long column – including some 2.000 Angolan troops from 5th and 18th Regiment, supported by tanks and APCs, and 150 Nambian Defence Forces troops – entering Congo from SW, along the road from Cabinda to Kinshasa.
Just two days later, on 24 August, a British tourist reported sighting a column of at least 500 Ugandan troops, two tanks and several self-propelled anti-aircraft pieces (probably ZSU-23-4s) no less but 180 kilometres inside Congo. Zimbabwean and Angolan intelligence reported also vivid deployment of Ugandan Army Air Force helicopters along borders to Congo, and AFZ-units deployed in the country were warned that confrontations were possible. Obviously, Uganda was now responding to Angolan and Zimbabwean interventions by a major troop commitment and support of the rebel assault on Kisingani as well. In total, there were now five African countries fighting on Kabila’s side in Congo.
In order to better coordinate their efforts, the Angolans, Namibians and Zimbabweans agreed to put all their troops under a unitary command. The overall command of these contingents was given to AFZ Air Marshall Shiri, who delivered a simple plan: the Zimbabweans were to hold out at Kinshasa and in Katanga, while the Angolans would advance on Kitona and then establish a land-communication between the two parts of Congo held by the Zimbabweans.
The FAN by now had MiG-21s of both, the Flight 1 and Flight 2, deployed at airfields near Kinshasa. Some MiG-23s were seen there as well, but never confirmed by Their aircraft operated without any national markings and flew first combat sorties against RDC rebels near Kisingani and Kasangulu. Also deployed to Kinshasa were several Angolan Mi-25/35 helicopters.
Meanwhile, a number of mercenary outfits appeared on the surface as well – mainly South African and British-based companies, like Branch Energy, Diamond Works, Heritage Oil and Gas, and Sandline International – most of which were frequently misidentified as “EO”, or brought in connection with it, without any valid reason (the fact was that this company stopped operating already earlier that year; of course, this did not mean that all of its former employees returned home: quite a number of them took care to get new contracts from local companies and the government). The South Africans were contracted by Kabila to recapture and defend the strategic Inga Dam, provide VIP-protection, electronic surveillance and air combat support. Few South African pilots appear to have been flying some of Congolese and Angolan aircraft and helicopters, used for “offensive air reconnaissance operations” – also against UNITA’s bases inside Congo. Another group of around 100 mercenaries was taking care about the security in Lumumbashi, Katangese capital, while an – unnamed – South African consortium was contracted by Kabila for providing “non-lethal” support, including air- and sea-transport of cargo and military supplies. This company was connecting foremost Namibia, Angola, and Zambia with Congo. The deployment of foreign mercenaries was eventually highly effective: without any special problems the South Africans secured the western road and rail corridor – including the oil pipeline and electricity distribution lines to the Atlantic coast – and thanks to them by mid-September 1998 Kabila was able to claim that these were now safe for normal function.
On 26 August 1998 the second contingent of Zimbabwean troops was deployed to Kinshasa. Simultaneously, Libyan Arab Republic Air Force (LARAF) Ilushin Il-76 transports were used to bring 1.500 Chadian fighters to Congo. Their deployment enabled Zimbabweans to free part of their units and start an mopping-up operations around the capital while the Angolans marched on Kitona. This, however, not before the RCD-rebels launched one final attack against the two airfields near Kinshasa, occupying most of Zimbabwean and Angolan troops in the area for two or three following days. Effectively, what was then left of the original rebel units in western Congo was destroyed in a multi-prong offensive. With their airfields in the area safe, the AFZ technicians were free to reactivate several SF.260MCs they found at local airfields. Supported by FAN MiG-21s and Zimbabwean-flown SF.260s, as well as MB.326s, the Zimbabwean and Angolan troops then advanced eastwards, through thick jungle, destroying several larger groups of the enemy.
Soon after deployment of larger Angolan and Zimbabwean units in the Kinshasa-area, the rebels started suffering setbacks. After capturing Kitona the Angolans found themselves in a pursuit of their opponents and then deep inside the rear areas held by the rebels. In the process of this advance they completely destroyed the chain of supply of Rwandan and rebel forces in western Congo. The Zimbabwean push towards east from Kinshasa run out of steam pretty soon – and there was a number of reasons for this. The Angolans were not yet ready for their advance and could therefore not decrease the rebel pressure towards west. Meanwhile, the RCD and MLC have recruited well over 100.000 fighters in eastern Congo and more of these were appearing on the battlefield as the main rebel effort was an advance towards RCD-headquarters in Kisingani. Besides, by mid-September the war was fought on no less but three different fronts, in Kindu, Kalemie and Kisingani, and heavily equipped foreign troops were unable to be everywhere at the same time.
The problem was, however, that during the Non-Aligned Summit in South Africa, in early September, the situation suddenly changed again. The South African President Nelson Mandela announced without any explanation that South African was now backing the intervention in support of Kabila. At least as astonishing was reaction of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who – in belief that Kabila’s government was already safe – suggested that there was no need to continue the war, and peace should be negotiated. Kabila, however, was not the least read to negotiate with rebels, while Rwanda and Uganda misunderstood Mugabe’s suggestion as a sign of weakness. The eventual result was that the rebels reinforced their efforts: the Rwandans and Ugandans were also rushing better-equipped units into the battle as well. Indeed, the garrisons in eastern Congo that remained loyal to Kabila were falling one after the other. At Kisingani the support of FAN MiG-21s was insufficient. The city fell on 27 August and 400 pro-Kabila fighters – including some 100 troops of the Allied Democratic Forces and 100 Rwandese Interahamwe – were captured. Besides, the rebels also claimed to have shot down an Angolan MiG-21 near the city, on the afternoon of 26 September. They simultaneously attacked also the Ndigili airport, in Kibanseke Province, held by Zimbabwean troops, as well as Kitona. In both cases the FAN and AFZ responded with fierce air strikes, offering rebels the opportunity to claim that up to 100 civilians were killed by their bombs.
Consequently, after initial successes of both sides, and the successful defences of Kabila’s supporters, the later experienced a number of setbacks. What happened was that while the Zimbabweans and Angolans were bringing good equipment, experience and discipline, the rebels were present in numbers their opponents could not tackle, while the Rwandans and the Ugandans added heavy weapons and fire-support. With foreign troops in his back Kabila returned to Kinshasa predicting victory over the rebels and urging a genocidal campaign against members of the Tutsi tribe. In response, Uganda and Rwanda launched a joint airlift, moving additional heavy weapons and own troops into central and southern Congo.
Eventually, the two sides clashed in a series of fierce battles fought between 4 and 13 September 1998, during which finally also the Angolan mechanised forces were able to deploy their full firepower. The Chadian contingent was meanwhile deployed in NE Congo, where it participated in re-capture of Lubutu. The AFZ and FAC were active in this area for several days, flying a number of strikes during which also cluster-bomb units (CBUs) were used. According to government reports 45 rebels were killed and 19 captured in this battle.
The fighting in what can only be described as the “manoeuvre phase” of this war culminated on 13 September, when the Angolans attacked towards Kamina, while the Zimbabweans found themselves under fierce attacks by thousands of rebels in the Manono area. It was in this area that the AFZ suffered its first documented loss of this war: on 4 September the SF.260MC flown by Sqn.Ldr. Sharunga crashed in bad weather, killing the pilot. Nine days later also an Alouette III helicopter carrying several high officers – including Col. Kufa and Sqn.Ldr. Vundla – was shot down by rebels in eastern central Congo. Kufa and Vundla were killed, while Flt.Sgt. Sande was captured by RCD.
There followed a relatively quiet phase used by both sides for replenishing their stocks of ammunition and equipment, reorganization and reinforcement of units in the field. Rwandans, Ugandans and rebels were faster. In early October they launched a major offensive against Kindu, deploying some 9.000 troops in the area. The Congolese Army had barely 5.000 fighters from several scattered units in the city: these were clearly insufficient and Kindu fell after only few days of fighting. The Zimbabweans reacted by deploying an additional battalion via Zambia, and increasing their troop presence in Congo to meanwhile some 5.000 troops, but the rebels then launched new offensives – towards Lumumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi, threatening both of the airfields used by the AFZ.
The next battle developed when rebels – with extensive support Rwandas - launched a new offensive over the Congo river, attacking the City of Kindu, in early October 1998. The Zimbabweans deployed two battalions in the area, supporting them from the air by transport aircraft. One of these, a chartered Il-76, was shot down by rebels or Rwandans, on 11 October, while attempting to land, killing 40 troops. The weapon used was probably SA-14 MANPAD, a number of which was acquired from Eastern Europe and to reach the battlefields in these days.
Despite strong resistance, the Rwandans captured Kindu by 15 October. As soon as the city fell the local airfield was cleared and used for transport of supplies and ammunition. According to reports of the foreign press, at least three medium-sized transport aircraft were observed flying in shuttle traffic between Kindu and Kigali. The origin of these aircraft remains unknown, then neither Rwanda nor Uganda are known to have had any larger transport aircraft in service at the time. Nevertheless, considering the number of surplus airframes available in the former USSR at the time it was certainly not especially problematic for either of the two countries to “charter” foreign aircraft – foremost from a number of companies run by Russians or Ukrainians, and based in Sharjah, in UAE.
The Zimbabweans subsequently found themselves under additional pressure, then even if in the north the Congolese and Chadian troops re-captured Bunia – with some support from FAN MiG-21s and Mi-24s – on 23 October 1998, the situation of their troops in eastern central Congo was swiftly worsening. Few days later the Zimbabweans launched an offensive – to a degree possible due to deployment of additional foreign troops in Congo, including some 2.000 Namibians – in SE Congo. This began with a series of air strikes, partially flown by BAe Hawk T.Mk.60s of the No.2 Squadron, newly deployed in Congo, and by F-7s of the No.5 Squadron. These first targeted airfields in Gbadolite, Dongo and Gmena, and then rebel and Rwandan communications and depots in Kisingani area, on 21 November. On the following day the No.2 Squadron prepared a special mission, launching a strike package of six aircraft, armed with Mk.82 bombs and Matra 155 rocket launchers for unguided rockets calibre 68mm: reaching out far over central Congo they appeared over the Lake Tanganyka and attacked ferries used to transport Burundi troops and supplies into the war in Congo. According to Zimbabwean reports their strike came as a complete surprise: with no other means of air defence but machine-guns and light infantry weapons, six ferries were sunk and 600 Burundi and Rwandan troops killed.
There were only very few reports about the fighting in the next few days, probably because the Congolese, Zimbabwean and Angolan governments found themselves under heavy pressure from Western powers because of this offensive. The few reports released from sources close to the rebels indicated Zimbabwean and Congolese attacks on Nuyuzu, Kasinge and towards Manono, supported even by T-62 tanks and heavy artillery. According to Zimbabwean reports the Hawks and F-7s continued their operations by additional attacks against Kalemi, on 24 November, and a new round of strikes against different airfields in eastern Congo, two days later, during which the pilots of No.5 Squadron claimed destruction of an unidentified An-12 transport on the ground.
(To be continued…)
Except for own research and materials kindly supplied by contributors on ACIG.org forum, especially Mr. Tom N., the following sources of reference were used:
- "AFRICAN MiGs; MiGs and Sukhois in Service in Sub Saharan Africa" by Tom Cooper, SHI Publications 2004 (ISBN: 3-200-00088-0)
- "CONTINENT ABLAZE; The Insurgency Wars in Africa, 1960 to the Present" by John W. Turner, Arms and Armour 1998 (ISBN: 1-85409-128-X)
- "Congo At War", ICG Report No.2, Briefing on the Internal and External Players in the Central African Conflict, by International Crisis Group (ICG), issued 17 November 1998
- “Ugandan Notes” by Winston Brent, AFM volume 12/1996, p.26/27.
- New Vision, Kampala (newspaper, different issues)
- The Monitor, Kampala (newspaper, different issues)
- La Réference Plus, Kinshasa (newspaper, different issues)
- Zimbabwe Standard, Harare (newspaper, different issues)
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