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Congo Time Line

  Troops Seize Congolese Leader's Rival

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 27, 1997; Page A29

Soldiers loyal to newly installed President Laurent Kabila forcibly removed one of Congo's principal opposition leaders and his wife from their house tonight, hours after he appeared to have violated a government ban on political rallies, witnesses said.

Officials did not immediately give a reason why the soldiers detained Etienne Tshisekedi, whose longtime opposition to former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was overshadowed when Kabila's armed rebellion toppled Mobutu last month.

Tensions between the two opponents of Mobutu sharpened when Kabila did not name Tshisekedi, a three-time prime minister, to his cabinet, but there had been glimmers of hope this week that the men were moving to resolve their differences. Kinshasa's raucous press had been abuzz with rumors of an impending meeting between the two men, which would have been the first since Kabila's forces took Kinshasa on May 17.

Witnesses at Tshisekedi's house said 100 well-armed troops surrounded the sprawling compound on the outskirts of this teeming African capital shortly after sundown. When Tshisekedi refused to surrender, they burst into his bedroom and carried away him and his wife, Marthe.

Marcel Mbayo, Tshisekedi's top aide, said Tshisekedi did not appear to have been hurt in the scuffle to detain him.

"People at the scene asked the soldiers if they had a warrant," he said. "Then they just burst into the house."

Raphael Ghenda, Congo's information minister, said late tonight that he was checking reports of the incident but declined to comment further.

A band of Tshisekedi's supporters gathered outside the compound after the incident, burned a bus and threatened a Voice of America reporter.

Angered because Kabila did not appoint him prime minister, Tshisekedi previously had accused the new president of establishing a dictatorship similar to Mobutu's regime. But recently he has been more conciliatory. In a speech today to thousands of students at the University of Kinshasa, Tshisekedi said he believed he and Kabila would "harmonize conflicting views" about Congo's future. He added, however, that Rwandan Tutsi soldiers, who supplied Kabila with the firepower and foot soldiers he needed to oust Mobutu, should go home.

Kabila's government is sensitive to accusations that it is a puppet of foreign masters -- specifically Rwanda, Uganda and Angola, which combined to supply Kabila's alliance with most of his army, weapons and commanders. Tshisekedi's anti-Rwandan statements coincided with a visit to Kinshasa of senior Rwandan officials, a Congolese government official said.

According to the official, the speech at the university technically violated a government decree, issued by Kabila, that banned political rallies and activities for two years by any group other than Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo.

A prominent Congolese journalist said he was surprised by the troops' action because Kabila already had succeeded in sidelining the once powerful figure. "This will only increase Tshisekedi's profile," he said.

At its root, their disagreement is over who has the legitimate claim to Congo's leadership -- Kabila, a professional revolutionary who came to power by means of the gun, or Tshisekedi, a politician who favored peaceful means in his fight against Mobutu. Kabila's claim to power is that he actually toppled Mobutu; Tshisekedi's is based on the fact that he was elected prime minister three times by a transitional parliament. Each time, Mobutu either dismissed him or refused to recognize his election.

Tshisekedi still considers himself prime minister and holds cabinet meetings every Thursday in the courtyard of his residential compound, aides say.

Associates and Western diplomats say Tshisekedi is a notoriously difficult person to work with. Earlier today, for example, Jacques Mbila, one of his aides, said Kabila's soldiers had approached Tshisekedi, telling him they had been sent by Kabila to escort him to a meeting with the president. Tshisekedi refused, saying he was too busy.

Tshisekedi has rejected earlier opportunities to see Kabila because he had demanded that Kabila come to his house.

One Western diplomat said Tshisekedi's tempestuous behavior has cost him dearly.

"He's blown away a lot of international support over the years by the way he treats people," the diplomat said. "Anyone who disagrees with him is automatically a traitor. He's just a very difficult character."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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