In contrast to the first Shaba invasion, where the FLNC had launched an outright invasion of Zairian territory, Shaba II started with an infiltration of Zaire. Then during early May 1978, ten FLNC battalions entered Shaba through northern Zambia, a sparsely populated area inhabited by the same ethnic groups (Lunda and Ndembu) that made up the FLNC . A small element headed toward Mutshatsha, about 100 kilometers west of Kolwezi, to block the path of Zairian reinforcements that might attempt to move into the area. During the night of May 11-12, the remainder of the force moved to Kolwezi, where it linked up with the rebels who had infiltrated the town during the previous six months. Although the FAZ had picked up many intelligence indicators pointing to an invasion, the town of Kolwezi was lightly defended.
The FLNC struck at dawn on May 13 and took Kolwezi by 10 AM; FLNC forces also captured Mutshatsha. Unlike the previous year, the insurgents did not disperse their force. The FLNC invasion of 1978 differed from Shaba I in another important respect. In 1977 the insurgents had done little physical damage. Although their forces had occupied nearly a third of Shaba, they had stopped short of the strategically important Kolwezi, not interfering with mining operations or endangering Europeans. In 1978 the rebels aimed directiy at Kolwezi. By immediately striking this economically vital area, and by threatening Europeans, the FLNC provoked a much different international response than in 1977. This attack was a bold maneuver and might have succeeded were it not for the arrival within a week of 700 French and 1,700 Belgian soldiers, supported logistically by the United States Air Force.
The FAZ performed little better than it had done the previous year. Indeed, as Zaire specialist Thomas Callaghy notes, Mobutu's harsh suppression of an attempted military coup in February 1978 (in which he dismissed, imprisoned, or executed 250 officers, including many foreign-trained officers) "clearly had a detrimental effect on military performance during Shaba II, in which Zairian troops performed only marginally better than during Shaba I."
Units of the Kamanyola Division collapsed immediately. Many took refuge in the European residential area, where most of the expatriate casualties were later suffered. Many Zairian troops removed their uniforms and took part in the general mayhem that occurred. In fact, most of the senior and mid-ranking officers had vanished prior to the attack, leaving junior officers and NCOs to lead the defense of the area. The small Kolwezi defense force (about 300 strong) was quickly overrun. The airport also fell to the insurgents in the initial onslaught, so Kolwezi was effectively under enemy control. In the attack on the airport, two helicopters and four Aermachi counterinsurgency jets belonging to the Zairian air force were destroyed on the ground, and two other Aermachis were damaged. Thus, Zaire was unable to use even the relatively limited amount of modern combat equipment that would have given the FAZ a significant tactical advantage over the FLNC.
Shortly after taking Kolwezi, the invaders' discipline broke down, which led to widespread drunkenness, looting, pillaging, and murder. Although initial reports reaching the outside concerning the slaughter of Europeans turned out to be somewhat exaggerated, the white community was undoubtedly under assault, and many local Zairians were also murdered.
The FLNC was unable to retain control of Kolwezi's airport, however. On May 17, Zairian regular units reinforced by a paratroop company and supported by air strikes counterattacked, forcing the rebels to withdraw. The FLNC claimed that white soldiers also participated, but this claim is dubious. Although the airborne unit was trained and advised by the French, French policy precluded the deployment of advisers in combat, and Paris denied that members of the French advisory mission participated.
Determining the number of rebels involved in Shaba II is difficult. Some sources have offered a figure of 4,000, although they differ on the percentage of this force that infiltrated prior to the commencement of hostilities. However, probably no more than 500 seasoned FLNC troops took part in the actual attack, with the balance consisting of infiltrators and other personnel recruited locally.
On May 19, a 700-member battalion of the French Foreign Legion parachuted into Kolwezi under orders to rescue the hostages held by the FLNC and to prepare to evacuate all whites from the war zone. The Belgians sent a paratroop regiment to Kamina (more than 200 kilometers north of Kolwezi) and proceeded by road to Kolwezi with orders to use their weapons only if fired on first by the rebels. The Belgian commander reportedly had disarmed his men (by taking away their bullets) to avoid the possibility that they would fire on the Legionnaires, who were committing atrocities.
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