KIGALI, Rwanda - Rwanda's powerful defense minister, Paul Kagame, has acknowledged for the first time his country's key role in the overthrow of President Mobutu Sese Seko in neighboring Congo, saying the Rwandan government planned and directed the rebellion that toppled the longtime dictator and that Rwandan troops and officers led the rebel forces.
Rwandan forces participated in the capture of at least four cities - the Congolese capital, Kinshasa; the southern copper-mining town of Lubumbashi; the key western crossroads of Kenge; and the diamond center of Kisangani, which fell March 15 in what was considered the key battle of the war, Kagame said in an interview here Monday.
He said Rwandan "midlevel commanders" led Congolese rebel forces in the rebellion and Rwanda provided training and arms for those forces even before the campaign to overthrow Mobutu began last October.
Several other African countries, including Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Zambia, are also known to have supported the rebel cause. But Kagame's account suggests the war, which began in eastern Congo near the Rwanda and Uganda borders, was planned primarily by Rwanda, and that the plan to remove Mobutu originated in Kigali.
The Rwandans' role in the rebellion has been controversial in Congo. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who proclaimed himself president of Congo in May, has maintained that his forces were assembled from among Congo's many ethnic groups. But the large number of ethnic Tutsis - who account for a tiny percentage of Congo's population but dominate the government and armies of Rwanda and Burundi - in the rebels' ranks have led Kabila's critics to claim Congo is being ruled by a Rwandan occupation force.
Kagame, a Tutsi, also responded to allegations that Tutsi officers of the Rwandan army ordered massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees inside Congo.
The Hutu refugees fled to Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1994 after Kagame's Tutsi-led army seized power in Rwanda and ended a campaign of massacres of Tutsis by Hutu troops and militias that killed at least 500,000 people.
While not denying the possibility of individual atrocities, Kagame accused U.N. officials who have leveled massacre charges against Rwandan army and Congolese rebel forces of fallaciously trying to equate their behavior with the genocide that Hutu extremists carried out in Rwanda.
"Their failure to act in eastern Zaire directly caused these problems, and when things blew up in their faces, they blamed us," he said.
Kagame, who holds the titles of vice president and defense minister and is Rwanda's most powerful leader, said that months before war, he warned the United States that Rwanda would take military action against Mobutu's regime and the refugee camps in eastern Congo being used as a base by the Hutu fighters Kagame had defeated. An estimated 1.1 million Hutus were housed by late 1996 in camps in eastern Congo.
Hutu militias used the camps as bases from which they launched raids into Rwanda, and Kagame said the Hutus had been buying weapons and preparing a full-scale invasion of Rwanda.
Kagame said he and other Rwandan officials tried to persuade the United Nations and Western countries to demilitarize the refugee camps and separate the Hutu fighters from the real refugees. "We told them clearly: `Either you do something about the camps or you face the consequences.' "
While Kagame said he was unaware of any American military support for the rebellion, he commended the United States for "taking the right decisions to let it proceed."
In the 1994 war in Rwanda, Kagame led a rebel force of 8,000 predominantly Rwandan Tutsi exiles who had been given sanctuary and training in Uganda - against a 30,000-strong, Hutu-dominated government army trained and equipped by France and backed by tens of thousands of armed Hutu militiamen. U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan, the supreme commander of NATO forces, described Kagame as "a visionary," a perception shared by other American and Western military officers.
The Rwandan army had already begun training Tutsis from Congo who had been the target of attacks by Congolese Hutus for more than three years. Rwandan agents started making contact with other Congolese rebel force. Slowly, the organization that would be known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo began to take shape.
Kagame said most of the guerrillas in the alliance were Congolese but that key units belonged to the Rwandan army.
Kagame said the battle plan as formulated by him and his advisers was simple. The first goal was to "dismantle the camps." The second was to "destroy the structure" of the Hutu army and militias based in and around the camps either by bringing the fighters back to Rwanda and "dealing with them here or scattering them."
The third goal was broader: toppling Mobutu. Kagame said, "it would have been more suitable" if Congolese rebels had done most of the fighting against Mobutu's troops, but it also would have been riskier.
"I don't think they were fully prepared to carry it out alone," he said.
Yesterday, a Clinton-administration official told Congress of plans to assist Congo despite unresolved concerns about the Kabila regime.
The scope of aid will be determined by Kabila's policies on democratic reform, human rights and economic restructuring, Acting Assistant Secretary of State William Twaddell told the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa.
"We do not have the luxury of remaining aloof for months or years while we wait to see which course the Congo takes," he said.
In the current fiscal year, the administration hopes to allocate about $10 million to Congo, most of it to be channeled through private organizations for public health programs such as immunizations of children, according to Richard McCall, chief of staff of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States backed Mobutu as a bulwark against the spread of communist influence in central Africa. But Mobutu's usefulness ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Washington stopped providing aid to Zaire in 1990.