Westerners fled the Congolese capital Saturday while rebel armies battled troops loyal to President Laurent Kabila near the Atlantic coast of this sprawling Central African country.
Confusion and tension rose in Kinshasa, prompting the United States and other Western nations to close or scale back their embassies and fly diplomats and dependents out of the country.A rebel army of Congolese Tutsis, Rwandan soldiers and disenchanted members of Kabila's military has been pushing toward the capital with the aim of toppling the president's 15-month-old regime.
Kabila's commanders vowed to launch a counteroffensive against the rebels. Although the precise locations of the western battlefront were not available, the rebels said earlier they were within 150 miles of Kinshasa.
"We're getting ready to launch a counter strike at the rebels who are in Lower Congo," Information Minister Didier Mumengi said in a telephone interview. "As long as there are foreign troops on our soil, the only solution will be a military solution."
Many in the rebel movement helped Kabila oust longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997 but now say they have been marginalized by his government.
In Kinshasa, thousands of students and government employees marched along the city's main street pledging support for Kabila and accusing Rwanda of waging war on Congo. Many protesters also accused France and the United States of trying to destabilize Congo.
With tensions boiling, foreigners have been fleeing on chartered evacuation flights.
The U.S. Embassy was shut down Saturday and the 20 remaining Americans were flown to Yaounde, Cameroon, U.S. officials said in Washington. More than 300 Americans - U.S. Embassy staff, family and other Americans - left on two chartered Delta Air Lines flights to Washington on Friday, an embassy official said.
Hundreds of foreigners converged at a Congo River port to board an evacuation boat arranged by the French Embassy to carry people to Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo.
French, Belgians, Italians and others were evacuated.
"I didn't want to leave, but now I've got to go," said Annette LeFevre, a Belgian who said she feared for her two young daughters.
"We don't know what is going to happen tomorrow, so we must leave today," said LeFevre, whose Congolese husband was staying behind.
Standing behind military barricades set back from the water, Teixera De Souza, a Brazilian, watched his wife and children leave. He stayed behind to finish some business in Kinshasa.
"I'll join them as soon as I can," he said.
The French Foreign Ministry said Saturday that the departures were on a voluntary basis and that it did not intend to close its embassy. About 250 French have asked to be evacuated, officials said. The Portuguese government has asked for French and U.S. help to evacuate about 400 of its citizens from the Congo, a Portuguese newspaper reported Saturday.
Hoping to stem the fighting, foreign ministers from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Namibia were in Kinshasa on Saturday to meet with Congolese government officials. Despite their peace efforts, there was no sign the government was pulling back from its fight against the rebels.