Zairian City Falls; Leader Sacks Rival
By James Rupert
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, April 9 -- Zairian rebels pushed into the country's second-largest city today, and President Mobutu Sese Seko turned to the military in an attempt to maintain his slipping hold on power.
Mobutu sacked the prime minister he had appointed a week ago and replaced him with a general who vowed to curtail civil liberties. Troops clashed with anti-Mobutu protesters in Kinshasa, the capital, and lost control of Lubumbashi, the hub of mineral-rich Zaire's copper belt, to rebels who have seized more than a third of the country and will now set their sights on Kinshasa.
The rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, tonight called a three-day "pause" in his army's advance to allow Mobutu "to negotiate his departure," according to Reuter news service. Kabila claimed this week to have units within 170 miles of the capital, which he has vowed to reach by June. But Western diplomats there have said they are not sure that Mobutu's regime will last that long.
Mobutu, who at 66 is gravely ill with prostate cancer, has resisted weeks of pressure from the United States and other foreign governments to make political concessions to his opponents, who demand his ouster. Today, the United States, one of Mobutu's strongest backers for the first 25 of his 31 years in power, hinted publicly that it would like to see him resign, but declined to say so directly.
With Mobutu losing ground in his struggle to preserve power, his moves today marked a shift from political maneuvering to direct reliance on the military. He used emergency decrees to oust opposition Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi and name Gen. Likulia Bolongo in his place. On Tuesday night, state television reported Mobutu had declared a state of emergency and appointed military governors for the provinces still nominally under his control.
But the rebels' arrival in Lubumbashi has offered new signs of uncertainty about how much of Zaire's deeply divided military Mobutu can count on. The rebels moved against the city on Monday and found unexpected resistance from Mobutu's elite Special Presidential Division, whose officers claimed on Tuesday to have fought off the rebel advance. But journalists also said dozens of soldiers from regular army units had donned white headbands and declared their support for the rebels.
Today, rebels appeared in the city and no further combat was reported. As of this evening, it was not yet clear whether they controlled the whole city.
Kabila said his forces had taken the city, special correspondent Cindy Shiner reported from the east Zairian town of Goma. He repeated his vow to move on to Kinshasa by June, but said his forces would halt their advance in anticipation of expected overtures from Mobutu's government.
The halt, Kabila explained, was not a cease-fire but "a pause . . . a little period of three days for Mobutu to make a decision to contact us to negotiate his departure," according to Reuter. "We hope that something big will happen within three days."
Kabila said there were indications that the government would contact the rebels within three days, but he said he will accept nothing short of Mobutu's departure as a precondition for a cease-fire.
Confident of eventual victory, Kabila said Mobutu should not leave Zaire if he is ousted but instead should face an investigation into the riches Kabila accused the president of stealing from the national treasury. Mobutu, once considered one of the world's richest men, amassed much of his fortune by pocketing profits from Zaire's mineral industry and skimming foreign aid.
In Kinshasa, thousands of residents gathered this morning to escort Tshisekedi, a longtime foe of Mobutu, to take up his new functions at the prime minister's office. But troops with armored vehicles blocked their route.
The troops beat Tshisekedi's supporters with rifle butts and fired tear gas, news agencies reported. The reports said gunshots were fired, although there was no immediate word of casualties. Officers leading the troops included one of Mobutu's sons, Gen. Mobutu Kongolu.
The troops briefly detained Tshisekedi before taking him to his home.
Mobutu appointed Tshisekedi last week in place of Kengo wa Dondo, who had lost virtually all political support during the six months the rebels have taken to seize most of eastern Zaire. The move was seen as a bid by Mobutu to benefit from Tshisekedi's popularity among Kinshasa's huge impoverished classes and in the economically important Kasai region, center of Zaire's diamond industry.
But Kasai's leaders last weekend nonetheless accepted the arrival of the rebels in their capital, Mbuji-Mayi, and Tshisekedi's supporters clashed with troops in Kinshasa in a wave of protests this week.
Tshisekedi confronted Mobutu and alienated some others in the political opposition by declaring the dismissal of Zaire's transitional parliament.
Today a Tshisekedi aide, Jean-Pierre Cimanga, told the Associated Press: "We are determined to pursue these protests. We are living through the last acts of a decadent regime about to fall." In Goma, however, Kabila discounted the possibility that Tshisekedi would have a future role in government.
Defense Ministry spokesman Leon Kalima said Mobutu acted because of "the gravity of the situation," which Likulia was "well suited to calm," the Associated Press reported. Likulia, a former defense minister and army chief of staff, promised a crackdown on civil liberties, saying his primary goal was "the restoration of public order."
The four-star general, dressed in his army uniform and surrounded by four other officers, did not elaborate on the crackdown at a news conference, but said measures would be taken against the news media if they published articles that "affected the morale of the military."
The United States today hinted publicly at the message it reportedly has delivered privately to Mobutu: that he must resign. "Mobutuism is about to become a creature of history, because the support for President Mobutu is not sufficient to lead Zaire into the next chapter of its history," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said in Washington.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns issued a similar statement, saying "the era of Mobutu is over." But both officials declined to say directly that Washington wants Mobutu out. "The United States does not run around on a daily basis and advise governments to resign. . . . It's up to the Zairian people," Burns said.
Burns said U.S. officials were watching the situation in Kinshasa closely, weighing whether to order an evacuation of an estimated 400 to 500 U.S. citizens in Zaire. Most Americans are in the capital, and U.S. troops are positioned across the Zaire River in the Congolese capital, Brazzaville, for a helicopter evacuation if Kinshasa erupts into violence.