Kabila pulls out of Zaire peace talks

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The crisis in Zaire took another twist yesterday when the rebel leader Laurent Kabila pulled out of an international peace summit intended to bring him into negotiations with President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mr Kabila abandoned plans to board a South African naval ship off the coast of Angola- where talks were to be hosted by the South African President Nelson Mandela - apparently because of security concerns - but did not rule out a possible meeting today.

"I am worried about security on the ship," Mr Kabila told a news conference in Angola. "No one has told me about who is there or what their role is."

The SAS Outeniqua was heading back to port yesterday with Presidents Mobutu and Mandela on board. An Angolan source said: "We'll try to reconstruct this whole thing later, but obviously it's going to be very difficult."

Mr Mandela was reported to be far from pleased and to have said "we need to stop wasting time".

Mr Kabila's change of mind was the latest snag to hit the planned talks to end a seven-month rebellion against Mr Mobutu's 32-year rule. His snub was an embarrassment to Mr Mobutu who made much of his journey to the SAS Outeniqua.

The Zairean dictator's days as head of state may be numbered but when the man who has grown obscenely rich at the expense of his poverty- ridden country arrived for peace talks, he did so in good old corrupt presidential style, accompanied by minders in dark glasses.

Mr Mobutu was five hours late for the ill-fated talks. It was a tense time during which the US delegation had to leave the ship twice for unscheduled pre-talks negotiations.

For weeks diplomats have shuttled in vain between Kinshasa and the eastern territory that Mr Kabila has taken, trying to hammer out a political solution.

It emerged yesterday that Mr Kabila had previously threatened to withdraw, claiming he had been misled by US negotiators. As the hours ticked away scores of armed soldiers grew restless on the pier, a Chinook helicopter hovered overhead and diplomats from the US, the Great Lakes region and South Africa grew anxious.

President Mandela - insisting that the "two leaders understand their responsibility" but declining to predict a political result - was already on board. Mr Mobutu was keeping him waiting. But the 31 steps to the deck of the Outeniqua were apparently to blame. Mr Mobutu, suffering from cancer, was simply too weak to climb them. He ruled out a helicopter on security grounds but in truth was too ill to fly.

In the end his embarkation was farcical, and seemed to hint at his political as well as physical decline: his limousine got stuck on the gangway.

As the driver reversed and stalled in a vain attempt to negotiate entry Mr Mobutu sat in the back, obscured by a swarm of dark suited hangers- on who depend on his survival, saying nothing. Diplomats said he was waiting for Mr Kabila to arrive. He did not appear.