KINSHASA, Zaire — Rebels claimed their biggest prize in Zaire's five-month civil war, saying they took control Saturday of the last government stronghold in the east. They threatened to push on to the capital but left open the chance of a negotiated peace.
Government troops reportedly looted the city of Kisangani, then fled with panicked residents across the Zaire River.
Rebels trying to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko claimed to have seized both airports in the strategic port city. There was heavy fighting in and around the city Friday night and Saturday morning.
Foreign relief workers also fled, leaving 70,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees 60 miles to the south to fend for themselves. French paratroopers evacuated some of the foreigners.
"As you know, the town of Kisangani fell into our hands at 2:45 p.m.," rebel leader Laurent Kabila announced Saturday at a news conference in the northeastern city of Goma.
"We are now thinking of going up to Kinshasa," the capital, 600 miles southwest of Kisangani. Kabila said, however, that he is open to a negotiated peace based on a five-point U.N. proposal.
A senior Western diplomat in the capital said it would be difficult for the rebels to take Kinshasa. A more immediate danger, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity, was a possible coup attempt by Zairian soldiers frustrated by humiliation on the battlefield.
An aide close to Mobutu conceded Saturday that the country's third-largest city appeared to have fallen to the rebels.
A military official in Kinshasa said rebels stormed the airports in Kisangani with tanks and heavy artillery.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said army troops clashed with Serbian mercenaries hired by the government. The mercenaries, he said, blocked soldiers who perhaps were trying to flee across the river or escape via the military airport.
"There were many deaths," the official said.
The loss of Kisangani, the capital of Upper Zaire province and the army's northeastern headquarters, would be one of the worst military setbacks of Mobutu's 32-year dictatorship.
For the rebels, the city would be a strategic foothold, with its two airports and location on the Zaire River, which is a key commercial route.
The rebels have accused Mobutu, who is recovering from cancer in France, of enriching himself while letting his country sink into poverty.