Dictator's acolytes deny he is quitting

Zaire crisis: Capital awaits sceptically for Mobutu's return as rebels close in

In the crumbling streets of the Zairean capital, Kinshasa, the men who gathered to argue over reports in the daily papers still agreed on one thing yesterday: President Mobutu Sese Seko would not be coming home today after a three-day regional summit in neighbouring Gabon.

But Lumbala Kapasa, the ailing President's spokesman, said the summit was not the first leg of a journey into exile in France. Mr Mobutu would return today, resolute in his pledge not to stand down if it means handing power to the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila.

The South African Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, at least must believe he is returning. Mr Mbeki is expected to fly to Kinshasa this afternoon to meet Mr Mobutu to try to keep talks between the dictator and the rebel leader alive, after their messy start on board the Outeniqua, a South African supply ship, last weekend.

Yesterday a South African government source said there would a second round of talks next week, within the eight- to-10 day consultation period announced by President Nelson Mandela, who presided over the Outeniqua summit.

As the city waited for Mr Mobutu not to show, the confused whirl of international peace initiatives continued, with Bill Richardson, US ambassador to the UN, flying to Paris to enlist French support for US peace efforts. But time is running out as the rebels continue their advance on Kinshasa.

Two days ago they captured Kenge, 200km east of Kinshasa, on the only passable route to the capital. But Mr Kabila's forces encountered perhaps the fiercest resistance since the war began. Up to 100 Zairean soldiers and 200 civilians may have died in the latter stages of a conflict which has generally avoided large loss of life. A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kinshasa said 10 local Red Cross workers were killed in the fighting. The civilians are believed to have been killed by retreating government troops. A charity worker claimed yesterday that many local people were murdered before the rebels even entered town.

The rebels claim to have forces within 60km of the city but neither diplomats nor locals believe them. "It's the same old pattern," said Jean-Pierre, a lecturer, who was in Bukavu, eastern Zaire, in October, when the rebellion began. "They wear down the army by making them nervous, then resistance melts before they even reach town."

No one doubts the rebels' pattern is the same. What is uncertain is how tens of thousands of Zairean troops at a dozen camps in and around Kinshasa will react to a rebel attack now there is nowhere left to run.

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