Belgian troops to leave Congo: President Mobutu is holding precariously on to power in Zaire despite dwindling support from the West

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HUNDREDS of Belgian paratroops were due to leave the Congolese capital this morning, a week after their dramatic arrival to evacuate Europeans caught in rioting and unrest across the Congo river in neighbouring Zaire.

The violence, sparked by soldiers rioting over receiving their pay in currency notes considered worthless, sent 1,500 foreigners fleeing to Brazzaville. But the 550 Belgian paratroops played little part in their evacuation. That was left to the 150 French soldiers flown in for the occasion.

Zaire's embattled President, Mobutu Sese Seko, said he did not want any troops from the former colonial power, which he accused of meddling, in Kinshasa. So the Belgians were restricted to Brazzaville. Just to show who was still boss in Zaire, Mr Mobutu diverted one boatload of European evacuees and had them brought to Brazzaville on his yacht.

Mr Mobutu has maintained a similarly disrespectful attitude towards demands made this week by Zaire's three big creditors, the United States, Belgium and France, that he transfer 'all powers' to the interim Prime Minister, the opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

'The only way to contain the dangerous developments is granting the (Tshisekedi) government . . . all powers,' said a joint statement on Wednesday. 'The three governments forcefully insist that the President of Zaire conforms (to their demands).'

Mr Mobutu has already rejected these demands - as he has similar opposition calls over the past quarter of a century when he was supported political, militarily and economically by the same Western countries which today are urging him to step down.

For now the violence appears to have subsided. 'Wednesday night was the first time in a week my Zairean staff said they had a good sleep,' said a Western diplomat in Kinshasa. Many observers believed the next chance of renewed unrest could come at the end of this month when soldiers are again scheduled to be paid.

Mr Mobutu may have problems paying them with the new 5-million zaire banknote which Mr Tshisekedi and most shopkeepers have declared worthless and which sparked the unrest. Belgian authorities have stopped a plane from flying 14.5 tons of the banknotes, printed by the British firm Harrison, to Zaire.

Senior US, French and Belgian officials met in Brussels yesterday to discuss what the Belgian Foreign Minister, Willy Claes, called Mr Mobutu's 'total political and economic isolation'.

Mr Mobutu can expect additional criticism from Western nations at a meeting of the International Monetary Fund later this month in Washington. But like Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader in neighbouring Angola whom he has long supported, and Togo's President, Gnassingbe Eyadema, Mr Mobutu has shown no signs of playing by the democratic rules of the game or caring what the international community thinks. He has fanned ethnic hatred in the independence-minded Shaba province and last week unleashed his presidential guard, the DSP, against mutinous troops with telling effect. The opposition has claimed 1,000 people were killed.

When the Belgians were threatening to arrive in Kinshasa, Mr Mobutu's guards sealed off the Gombe neighbourhood, the main expatriate residential quarter, and declared it an 'operational zone'.

It is difficult to see what the Western nations can do to enforce their demands on Mr Mobutu short of direct military intervention, a step an increasing number of Zaireans appear to support.

All three countries cut aid to Zaire after soldiers rioted in September 1991 when widespread unrest led many observers to predict Mr Mobutu's imminent downfall. Two years on, despite a national conference, an interim government led by the opposition and Western pressure to reform, Mr Mobutu still runs Zaire.

Shutting down Zaire's diplomatic missions, imposing sanctions or freezing assets abroad might be difficult to enforce. Mr Mobutu, believed to be one of the world's richest men, could be expected to survive such actions. He controls the elite forces of the army as well as the treasury. Zaire is rich in diamonds and copper and accounts for half of the world's supply of cobalt, the trade in which sanctions could not stop.

(Photograph omitted)