Surprise `breakthrough' in Congo crisis talks

A BREAKTHROUGH in the war in Congo was claimed last night after talks involving Congolese president Laurent Kabila, the rebels trying to oust him and the presidents of the five African countries already embroiled in the fighting.

Zambian president Frederick Chiluba chaired a meeting yesterday at Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls between Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan president Pasteur Bizimungu on one side and President Kabila and his allies, Namibian president Sam Nujoma, Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe on the other.

Mr Chiluba, chosen to front the Mugabe initiative, said all the participants had reached an agreement on the month-old war, which threatens to turn into a regional disaster. He promised details of the agreement would be released this morning.

Claims of consensus between the warring governments surprised observers. Allday the talks had been in a delicate position, hampered by a host of formidable obstacles. The first and most fundamental concerned the status of the rebels at the talks. Congolese officials warned they would walk out if the rebels were brought into face-to-face negotiations.

When the rebels arrived - four hours late - from their headquarters in Goma, eastern Congo, after aircraft failure, they wanted a seat of their own at the negotiating table.

But Mr Kabila and his allies insisted they sit with their backers Rwanda and Uganda, reflecting Congo's insistence that it is facing an invasion by Rwanda and Uganda, through a puppet rebel movement, and not a genuine rebellion.

Following a low-key reception at Victoria Falls airport, the rebels were ushered in via a side door, confined to a side room with no telephone, and guarded "for their own safety" by Zimbabwean police. Mr Chiluba met them separately from other the heads of state.

If substantial progress has been made it will be a feather in the cap of Mr Mugabe, who has used the Congolese crisis to relaunch himself as a regional statesman - a role he has reluctantly relinquished in recent years to South African president Nelson Mandela.