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  • Congo Time Line

  •   Zairian Rebel Leader, Mobutu to Meet on Ship as Forces Move Toward Capital

    By Stephen Buckley
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, May 1, 1997; Page A29

    Preparing what they described as a final push to victory, rebel leaders ignored U.S. calls for a cease-fire and moved more troops into Kikwit today, reinforcing the provincial center that is their latest conquest only 240 miles east of this increasingly nervous Zairian capital.

    The mood in Kinshasa remained tense, as it has been for weeks, despite an announcement that President Mobutu Sese Seko has agreed, after much hesitation, to meet with rebel leader Laurent Kabila aboard a South African ship on Friday. Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who arranged the meeting, described it as a way to obtain a cease-fire and a transitional government to organize elections.

    But with rebel forces already on the march down a road linking Kikwit and Kinshasa, rumors flew that rebel infiltrators are secretly at work in the capital. At the same time, residents reported an increasing number of Zairian army troops scouring neighborhoods, seeking rebel sympathizers.

    "The soldiers are now all over my neighborhood. They came and put everybody's name down on a list," said a teacher, who asked not to be identified. "They said they were going to interview everybody to find out who has been helping the rebels."

    Other reports said that in one section of the city, rebel sympathizers commandeered luxury vehicles, accusing owners of being in Mobutu's camp.

    News that Kikwit is in rebel hands created both panic and anticipation. Many here long to see the rebels' arrival and Mobutu's departure, but fear their coming could ignite violence. "People did not expect them to move this close this fast," said Joseph Miense, a priest in Kinshasa. "I think people are already beginning to celebrate their coming."

    Diplomats and other analysts here have expressed fear that the rebels' approach could indeed spark violence in Kinshasa, a teeming city of 5 million, if army troops begin retreating and discipline breaks down. Soldiers repeatedly have looted shops and homes and assaulted citizens before fleeing from oncoming rebel forces in other cities that have fallen during the six-month-old conflict. So far, the rebels have gained control over more than two-thirds of the country.

    Analysts also have warned that factions particularly loyal to Mobutu may engage the rebels in a last stand here, leading to bloodshed among civilians as well as soldiers. Worry over such violence is one reason Richardson and other diplomats have pressed Kabila for an immediate cease-fire leading up to Friday's talks. But the rebel leader repeatedly has said that there will be no truce before his meeting with Mobutu -- and that the meeting itself only can be a way to work out Mobutu's departure.

    Asked if there would be a cease-fire during the talks, Richardson said, "It is our hope. One step at a time. First, face-to-face talks. Then a cease-fire, a political framework and elections."

    Bizima Karaha, the rebel alliance's commissioner of foreign affairs, was more direct. The rebel advance is being prepared with Kikwit as a launching pad and will not halt or slow before or during Friday's talks, he told reporters in the rebel-held city of Lubumbashi, adding: "The next stop is Kinshasa."

    Mobutu and Kabila, leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, will open their talks off Gabon aboard the Outeniqua, a 545-foot naval supply ship provided by South Africa. They will end up in international waters, said Richardson, the U.S. envoy who has shuttled between western and eastern Zaire in talks with both men over the past two days.

    Although both Mobutu and Kabila agreed Tuesday to talk, it was still far from clear whether the meeting would actually take place or, if it does, that the two men will settle anything.

    By the end of Tuesday, Mobutu reportedly had rejected South Africa's offer to have the talks on the Outeniqua. But he and his advisers apparently had a change of heart overnight. Richardson said he believes Mobutu stopped resisting negotiations because the 66-year-old dictator feels "Zaire should resolve its difficulties peacefully."

    The U.S. envoy said the two parties will draw up an agenda for the talks. But he suggested that they will address a host of issues, including a transitional government, elections and the plight of about 100,000 Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire.

    It remained unclear whether any preconditions were linked to the talks. Richardson said there were none. But Kabila has insisted that he would meet with Mobutu only to discuss the president's departure.

    Mobutu, who has held power for nearly 32 years, has refused to resign, although he is battling prostate cancer and, in recent weeks, has appeared increasingly weak.

    Richardson said that several African leaders will be present at the talks, including South African President Nelson Mandela and Gabon's president, Omar Bongo. U.N. special envoy Mohamed Sahnoun also will attend.

    The American envoy said the agreement for talks stipulates that he also be present, at least for the start of the discussion.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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