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Festivity, Fear, but Little Fighting Greet Rebels on Arrival in Kinshasa

residents cheer Kinshasa residents cheer as they march through the streets of Kinshasa on Saturday to welcome troops led by rebel leader Laurent Kabila. (AP)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 1997; Page A20

KINSHASA, Zaire, May 17—There was no big bang, no sustained fighting. On the day when Laurent Kabilaís rebel movement moved in to occupy this chaotic capital of 5 million people, the constant buzz of wild rumor and speculation was more prevalent than the scattered bursts of gunfire.

Countless bizarre, angry and frantically joyous episodes unfolded all around the city. It was a day of fear for those with links to ousted president Mobutu Sese Seko and of jubilation for those who believe Kabilaís rebels are their salvation.

Many Mobutu loyalists are gone or in hiding. This was evident at the Intercontinental Hotel, a usually placid, somewhat elegant place that bristled this morning with weaponry and angry soldiers as Mobutuís remaining elite took flight. They surged through corridors, up and down elevators, causing "normal" guests to put on poker faces so as not to provoke some misdirected military ire.

The soldiers were evacuating their bosses and their wives and children, who had crammed into the hotel over the past several days, making it a way station for the vanquished. On cue with someoneís shout of "Departure!" a flood of luggage, children and weapons streamed through the hotel lobby, where soldiers at one point seemed ready to shoot a news photographer who wanted to record the event.

Their frantic exodus produced one of the most striking ironies of the day: the stripping of the convoy of a man known here as "Saddam Hussein"—and widely feared.

He is Capt. Mobutu Kongolo, a son of the deposed president, who led the evacuation of the hotel, then left two battle tanks, a Mercedes-Benz and two other cars at the shore when the group fled across the river to Brazzaville, Congoís capital—and safety. Doing what many desperate Zairians have done for years, a group of men made the best of someone elseís bad situation and converged on the cars and tanks like vultures, stripping everything they could from the detritus of Mobutuís family.

When journalists drove up and interrupted them, the dozen men turned on them to demand money and began banging on their van to get it. In the end, car and tank parts were their only bounty.

The victors, in other parts of the city, surged through the streets to celebrate. The victors, in reality, are not so much the rebels as the people of Kinshasa, for it is they who have waited and wished for Mobutu to be gone. In their wild delirium, they literally jumped around for joy, singing and chanting and generally exhausting themselves in their glee.

But they were not so overcome as to forget the politics of Zaireís history, and they made it abundantly clear that they think some old friends of Zaire had become its enemies. "No French, no French," they shouted to a passing car, for France had helped Mobutu for years and in this crowd, at least, people wanted no part of it. The French Embassy residence is where Mobutuís prime minister fled before a quick boat trip into exile.

Mobutuís defense minister and chief of staff, Gen. Mahele Lieko Bakungo, found no such refuge. He was assassinated around midnight while trying to foster calm and peace among Mobutuís angry troops and prevent what was feared would be a battle for Kinshasa. It was he who told Mobutu Thursday night that Kinshasa could not be defended. That warning prompted Mobutu to flee the capital, where the military feared his presence could spark a bigger battle.

Today, the legacy of Maheleís effort was etched starkly on the chalkboard of the Ngaliema Clinic Mortuary: "Box 14. Gl. Mahele."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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