Fears grow of rebel attack on Kinshasa

Talks to end civil war collapse as Kabila fails to turn up

A rebel attack on the Zairean capital Kinshasa seemed almost certain last night after an 11th hour diplomatic initiative to find a peaceful solution to Zaire's civil war collapsed.

A second round of South African-led peace talks between rebel leader Laurent Kabila and Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, aimed at bringing the President's 32-year dictatorship to a non-violent end, was at first "postponed" when Mr Kabila failed to show up on the South African supply ship the Outeniqua in the Congolese port of Pointe-Noire.

But late last night Mohamed Sahnoun, the UN Special Envoy, said it had been impossible to get the two sides to negotiate. With the rebels poised to take the capital, Mr Kabila's excuse that he failed to reach his helicopter pick-up point at Soyo, Angola, because his plane ran out of fuel, seemed a little lame. He also claimed he was still unhappy about security arrangements.

As they waited, the South African diplomatic team, led by President Nelson Mandela, said it could not believe Mr Kabila was stalling. But it seems that was just the conclusion reached.

South Africa's goodwill was sorely tested during the first talks, ten days ago, when it took two days to get the men on board the Outeniqua together. With Western military experts claiming the rebels - who in six months have seized most of Zaire - are now less than 100km from the capital, a Zairean government spokesman said last night that if war was inevitable the government was ready. He said President Mobutu would return to Kinshasa today.

Since the first face-to-face meeting between the dictator and the rebel, South African deputy president Thabo Mbeki has shuttled across the continent trying to sell a power-sharing deal to President Mobutu and Mr Kabila which would have given the rebels 60 per cent of the the seats in a parliament, and would have left the opposition to share the rest.

President Mobutu would have ceded power to a transitional authority, which could then have handed over power to Mr Kabila, saving the President's face. But until now the rebels have insisted they are interested in nothing less than a direct and immediate transfer of power from President Mobuto to Mr Kabila.

Mr Kabila's rebel forces are within 100km of Kinshasa and pledged to take it by the weekend if talks failed. The rebellion, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, began in October and the rebels now hold most of the country.

Yesterday Kinshasa's 5 million residents stayed home in response to an opposition call for a ville morte (dead city) day, to protest against proposals that would allow President Mobuto to transfer power to Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo, a controversial Roman Catholic cleric.

The streets of the city were deserted except for groups of Kinshasans listening to radio for news of the talks they had hoped would prevent a battle for the capital. A handful of gravediggers at the local Kinsuka cemetery were among the minority that chose to work.

In a city long collapsed, they are paid less than a dollar a month to bury the dead but turn up every day none the less. "We are working out of respect for the dead," said Joseph Mayala, who relies on direct payments from bereaved relatives of a few dollars to dig a hole.

Tens of thousands have been buried at Kinsuka since it opened in 1978. Like Kinshasa, it is falling apart.

The workers stuff leaves up their noses to kill the stench as they work because the government no longer provides masks. Michel Manyanya, too old to know his age, said he keeps up his job in the hope of a return to better government.

Asked about President Mobutu's responsibility for the dilapidated cemetery and city he becomes agitated. Like many elderly Zaireans he is still terrified to criticise President Mobutu. "Just look around you," he says "see for yourself."

His younger work mates were less reticent. They said they hated their president and hoped he was about to stand down. They would accept anyone, with no guarantees for the future or democracy, in his place.

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