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  •   Richardson to Mediate in Zaire Conflict

    By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, April 27, 1997; Page A25

    President Clinton escalated U.S. efforts to end Zaire's civil war yesterday by dispatching United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson to Africa to seek a settlement between the faltering Zairian government and rebel leaders who have seized much of the country.

    During a long career in Congress, Richardson developed a reputation as an adept free-lance diplomat who parachuted into tense situations around the globe and managed to broker against-the-odds deals or free American hostages. But this will be his first high-stakes overseas mission in his new role as Clinton's envoy at the United Nations.

    "Richardson has a proven track record, and the president has a lot of confidence in his ability," said White House spokesman Eric Rubin. "There's no guarantee of success here, but the feeling is he's done things like this before with great success."

    The president decided to send Richardson to the region after South Africa's attempts to negotiate a cease-fire stalled. U.S. officials fear that the fighting in one of the continent's largest nations could destabilize central Africa and worsen the region's humanitarian crisis.

    Led by Laurent Kabila, the rebels have captured half of the country and are bearing down on the capital of Kinshasa, where President Mobutu Sese Seko is struggling to hang onto power after more than 31 years. The Clinton administration has made clear that it believes it is time for Mobutu to go, declaring recently that "Mobutuism is about to become a creature of history."

    The major suspense seems not to be whether rebels will capture Kinshasa but how much blood will be spilled when they do. To the extent that the United States retains any influence with Mobutu, an estranged Cold War ally, it may fall to Richardson to stave off a violent end to his rule. Until now, the Clinton administration has relied on lower-profile efforts to end the hostilities led by Assistant Secretary of State George E. Moose and National Security Council official Susan Rice.

    Without a negotiated settlement, the administration fears several tragic scenarios in Kinshasa, including a deadly assault on the capital, a rebel siege that would lead to panic and looting by government troops or a coup attempt by military generals.

    Richardson will try to persuade both sides that it is in their interest to avoid a violent conclusion, officials said. "The optimal outcome would be negotiation of an inclusive transitional government leading to new elections," said one administration official who asked not to be named. "That's the most likely way to maintain stability."

    Richardson will leave late today and arrive in Africa Monday to get a first-hand look at the situation, officials said without elaborating on his specific destination. He hopes to meet with the major players, including Mobutu and Kabila, and also will visit eastern Zaire to assess the area's humanitarian crisis.

    An estimated 100,000 ethnic Hutus from Rwanda are missing in the jungle near rebel-held Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city, as rebel forces have blocked relief efforts and driven refugees from their camps. Aid workers reported that rebel troops, which include many ethnic Tutsis, attacked camps, forcing hungry and ill people into the surrounding forests.

    Kabila flew to Kisangani yesterday to discuss the fate of the refugees with foreign diplomats and relief officials, but generally dismissed responsibility.

    "Many among the refugees are criminals who are attacking local Zairians and engaging in acts of criminality," Kabila told the Reuter news service. While promising to punish any excesses, he added that, "so far the facts before me suggest my troops only intervened to stop fighting between heavily armed refugees and local Zairians."

    A 25-year-old Hutu woman found by aid workers emerging from the forest said villagers armed with sticks, spears and machetes entered the camp hospital where she worked Monday and hacked people to death. "I saw many dead bodies lying around the camp, but nobody stopped to count them," the woman told the Associated Press.

    After the first attack ended, she said, refugees heard a train coming and thought it was bringing food. But it was carrying rebel soldiers who began firing into the camp, she said.

    Staff writer John M. Goshko at the United Nations contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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