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  Zaire's Mobutu Cedes Power, Flees Capital

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 17, 1997; Page A01

Facing a final rebel assault on his capital, President Mobutu Sese Seko fled Kinshasa early this morning on the advice of frightened generals, and his government announced that the country's leader of nearly 32 years had relinquished power.

Mobutu flew to Gbadolite, his ancestral village 700 miles north of here, where his marble palace is known as an African Versailles. He took family members and truckloads of belongings with him to the airport, diplomats and an airport official said.

Diplomats here said his departure is the first leg of a flight into exile, perhaps in Morocco or France. In a telephone interview from Gbadolite tonight, however, Mobutu's son and aide, Mobutu Nzanga, denied that his father was going into exile, but then said the president had not decided on his next move. "It will depend on the course of the situation," he said.

Mobutu, 66, who suffers from prostate cancer, caved in and fled Kinshasa today under the military pressure of Laurent Kabila's rebel movement, whose forces are only 25 miles from the center of Kinshasa, their final prize in a seven-month campaign to force Mobutu's ouster and seize Africa's third-largest nation.

Mobutu, who grabbed power in a 1965 coup, will retain the title of president, Information Minister Kin-Kiey Mulumba said. But Mobutu "has ceased all intervention in the conduct of the affairs of state. . . . He reigns, but he does not govern."

The apparent end of one of Africa's epic political careers transpired with so little fanfare that few in this city of 5 million knew Mobutu was leaving until he had gone.

His exit was greeted with approval in Washington. President Clinton said: "The U.S. position is clear. We want to see a transition to genuine democracy."

Mobutu's departure leaves his prime minister, Gen. Likulia Bolongo, in effective control, although Kin-Kiey suggested that a new speaker of parliament, elected last week, would play a role in negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict with Kabila's rebels.

But Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire repeated its insistence that Mobutu resign and that his government and parliament relinquish all authority.

"We reject categorically the declarations of those irresponsible people in Kinshasa who do not want anything else than to see bloodshed in the capital, and they will be responsible for what might happen in that city," Kabila's foreign affairs chief, Bizima Karaha, said in Lubumbashi, the rebel's headquarters in southeastern Zaire, according to news services.

Asked if the rebels still would advance to take Kinshasa, he said: "We believe that the people of Kinshasa deserve to be liberated. There is more need than ever before for them to be liberated.

"We ask the military, the remains of the military of Mobutu, not to fight any more, not to loot, not to do anything unlawful and to await the announcement which will be made tomorrow by President Kabila."

The Zaire that Mobutu appears to be leaving behind is a literal gold mine of mineral riches, yet government corruption and economic mismanagement have kept its population of 45 million stunningly poor. State institutions do not function. Health care, public education and finance have collapsed.

Kabila may find himself facing stiff political challenges once he takes over the country, as he seems certain to do. But his rebel movement has found fertile ground since the beginning of its campaign last fall because of the widespread despair that Mobutu has wrought.

Diplomats here and abroad continued to work feverishly tonight to arrange some kind of nonviolent "soft landing" for the rebels in this nerve-wracked city. The rebels have about 10,000 men available to move against Kinshasa, Western officials say, with their front lines just 25 miles from downtown Kinshasa at the Nsele River. A diplomatic security source confirmed reports that an artillery barrage had hit a government camp just west of the Nsele River earlier in the evening, a clear indication that the rebels are continuing their advance.

West of the river on the road to Kinshasa lies N'Djili International Airport, which is 10 miles from the city center. Diplomats expect the airport to be the rebels' next target.

The army chief of staff and defense minister, Mahele Lieko Bakungo, whose forces have been broken by indiscipline, low morale and a series of humiliations at the hands of the rebels, told Mobutu Thursday night that the army could not defend the city and that Mobutu should leave for his own safety, according to diplomatic sources.

[Mahele was killed Friday night by members of the elite presidential guard at Camp Tshatshi, Mobutu's barracks residence in Kinshasa, according to Reuter news service. The report was attributed to a Western diplomat in neighboring Congo.]

While Mobutu may have dodged the figurative bullet, his capital has not -- at least not yet. This city, which for weeks has been preparing for the worst, remains vulnerable to angry soldiers set adrift as their government implodes.

Diplomats and residents have expressed fear that some soldiers may begin settling old scores or may choose to fight Kabila's forces when they arrive. Residents on the city's eastern perimeter, closest to the airport, have been hauling their families and belongings to the central city for safety. Soldiers of a key military camp near the airport also were retreating, which has been the pattern in every key engagement between rebel and government forces.

So much uncertainty remains that any celebration over Mobutu's departure would be premature. "We can't pop the champagne just yet," a diplomat said.

It is also believed here that high-level political leaders are fleeing the country. In the past few weeks, several generals -- including Likulia, the prime minister, according to one diplomatic and one security source -- have flown out planeloads of valuables and spirited their families away to safety.

Today, boats plied the Zaire River all day, ferrying Zairians across to the Congolese capital of Brazzaville. Witnesses there said they saw Gen. Nzimbi Ngabale, commander of Mobutu's elite Special Presidential Division, fleeing to Congo, the Associated Press reported. But diplomats here said they could not confirm Nzimbi's activities or whereabouts.

Diplomatic efforts to stitch together a broad-based transitional government -- comprising not only Kabila's alliance but also Zaire's political opposition and Mobutu's supporters -- continued under the leadership of South African President Nelson Mandela. Mandela's government, which has acted as mediator in face-to-face and indirect talks between Mobutu and Kabila, has proposed a formula whereby Kabila's forces will hold a majority of seats in transitional authority that would include elements of Mobutu's government. Kabila apparently signed off on the proposal Thursday when he met with Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa. Kabila had given Mobutu until Monday to consider it.

But Kin-Kiey said today the responsibility for solving the crisis now rests with the newly elected president of parliament, Roman Catholic Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo.

Zairian law mandates that the parliamentary president, or speaker, take over as president in the event of resignation or incapacitation of the head of state.

Monsengwo, however, has not officially accepted his election to the position, which both Kabila's rebels and the parliamentary opposition here have rejected because Monsengwo was supported by Mobutu's parliamentary majority.

Such confusion is the stuff of which Zaire's seven-year attempted transition to democracy has been made. And because Mobutu has been a master of protecting himself by fooling, dividing and co-opting his foes, not everyone in Kinshasa was willing to accept at face value that "the old leopard," as he is known, had really walked away.

"We asked him to go, and he is indeed gone," said Marcel Mbayo, chief aide to former prime minister Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the political opposition. But, Mbayo added, Mobutu "is trying to maneuver."

Diplomats said they still believe the political upheaval here could lead to elections.

Kabila has said he wants elections to take place, but at the same time neither he nor other top officials of his alliance have shown much affinity for democracy in the past. One of Kabila's close aides said earlier this year that Zaire's population is too politically uneducated to make an informed electoral choice.

The international community, however, is keeping a close eye on Kabila's moves toward democracy. A Western diplomat here said any foreign assistance to Kabila would be pegged to his progress toward democratic reform.

"We are at a time of testing for Mr. Kabila," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said today in Washington. "He does not have a track record as a government leader. He has held a variety of political and ideological positions throughout his long career in opposition.

"And we hope that he will be a responsible leader who believes in what the Zairian people deserve, and that is economic reform and reconstruction and political freedom."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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