Only diamond smugglers bring smiles to Zaire: Karl Maier spent some alarming hours at Kinshasa airport at the weekend before he got out to file this report

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The Independent Online
A LITTLE boy in a Batman T-shirt danced barefoot with friends around piles of broken glass as troops from President Mobutu Sese Seko's elite guard systematically looted Kinshasa's N'jili International Airport, which they were supposed to protect.

Although gunfire erupted every few minutes it did not seem to faze the street boys, who approached me and shyly asked for 'l'argent'.

Another who wanted argent - a request backed up by an M-16 rifle pointed at my stomach - was a wiry sergeant who led me to the back of a fire engine garage and said payment was necessary to guarantee my security. When I handed him one pounds 20 note and one dollars 5 bill he looked grave and said he really did not think it was enough. While we were negotiating, my baggage and a laptop computer disappeared.

Meanwhile other presidential guards, known as the DSP, dropped their booty from time to time to fire across the road at the base of Zaire's paratroopers, who were busy looting passing cars. The paratroopers, who rioted last week over pay, blocked the middle of the road leading west into the capital and swarmed over any vehicle that did not have sufficient fire power to ward them off.

One that did not was the last functioning airport minibus. The paratroopers seized it, beat up the driver, and hit and killed a pedestrian before crashing it. The driver said later the paratroopers wanted the minibus to pick up a fresh supply of beer.

Throughout Saturday night and Sunday small-arms fire at the airport was constant and the thud of mortars could be heard from just a few miles west. In the clashes between the paratroopers and the loyal presidential guard, many hundreds are thought to have died.

The presidential guard is generally considered a more disciplined force because Mr Mobutu pays it better than the rest of Zaire's military. But at the international airport, closed since the riots erupted, there appeared to be little difference between the guards and their bitter rivals, the paratroops.

At one point two officers had to run out on to the tarmac to prevent four soldiers from pushing a baggage cart loaded with loot into the path of an incoming aircraft.

The commanding officer of the detachment at the airport, a chronically drunken colonel given to ranting on his walkie-talkie to 'mon general', said nothing as his troops drove airport carts full of duty-free bottles of alcohol, airline calendars and parts of computers from the terminal to their barracks. Plastic toys, rolls of lavatory paper, crates of bottled

water and rubber surgical gloves were also among the booty.

'The only hope for Zaire is to get rid of Mobutu and all the soldiers,' said one airport worker who looked on helplessly. 'The soldiers who are here to protect us are looting everything. This is the story of Zaire.'

Several Zaireans at the airport told me they wished foreign troops would depose Mr Mobutu, whose 30-year rule of this resource-rich country is widely regarded as the most corrupt in Africa. He spends much of his time cruising in the presidential yacht up and down the Congo river.

At the airport, the landing of 20 Lebanese diamond smugglers on an unscheduled late-night flight from the Angolan border provoked great excitement. The pilot of the aircraft estimated that they were carrying dollars 2m of gems.

Every officer who raised an objection to their arrival was quietly led off to a room to receive payments in crisp dollars 100 bills.

The choleric colonel emerged all smiles from one back-room discussion, apparently now the best friend of the chief diamond smuggler.

The Lebanese spent some hours calling Zairean generals and officials on their cellular telephones to request authorisation for an early morning departure. It was granted.

A major who took possession of my passport, by contrast, refused to return it for the whole day. He gave it back only after my return flight to Brazzaville, the Congolese capital, had started its engines and was preparing to leave without me, and after pleading from airport workers who had befriended me.

'We are sorry for you to have such an impression of Zaire,' said one of the workers. 'Zaire's people are good. The problem is Mobutu and the army.'

(Photograph omitted)