Mandela offers hope of end to Zaire chaos

Only a week after almost torpedoing negotiations aimed at ending the war in Zaire, President Nelson Mandela was yesterday at the centre of the stage in talks which have recovered enough to offer the first glimmer of hope for peace in the Great Lakes.

On Wednesday, Mr Mandela, who caused diplomatic embarrassment by prematurely revealing that the warring sides were poised for their first face-to-face meeting, became the first head of state to make a public appearance with Laurent-Desire Kabila, the leader of the Zairean rebels.

In only five months, Mr Kabila has captured one-eighth of Zaire. His campaign threatens not only to smash his own giant country into pieces but to spill over the borders of Zaire's nine neighbours, resulting in regional mayhem.

Yesterday it was the turn of Honore Ngbanda, nephew, envoy and chief security adviser to the ailing Zairean dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko, to meet the South African President and pose with him for the cameras afterwards.

Mr Mandela revealed that the South African government had been in contact with President Mobutu, and that Zaire appreciated that only by negotiating with Mr Kabila could peace be achieved.

Despite Zaire's official line that there will be no negotiations until foreign troops have left its soil, Mr Ngbanda admitted conditions for face-to-face talks were being discussed.

So, those involved in the talks are scant with details. "The discussion have taken quite an advanced form," a chastened Mr Mandela said yesterday. "It is absolutely necessary if this process is going to go forward that there should be confidentiality."

The new South African initiative shows how much has changed since the Rwandan-backed rebellion began. At the start, Mr Kabila was dismissed as a puppet of Rwanda. The rebellion achieved what the UN failed to do - broke up the camps where Rwandan Hutu war criminals were being fed at international expense.

Up until a few weeks ago Western diplomats were still rubbishing Mr Kabila. But since then his forces have quashed Zaire's counter-offensive. His joint appearance with Mr Mandela seemed to transform him into a political power player.

International credibility comes in the wake of growing popular support at home. Before war broke out, few Zaireans had heard of Mr Kabila. Now he carries the hopes of a population desparate for an end to the Mobutu dictatorship. The country's largest opposition party announced last week it was attempting to join forces with the rebels.

If Mr Kabila has been reinvented this week, so has Mr Mandela. Since he won South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994 the President has shunned the mantle of a continental superpower. This week Mr Mandela is at the centre of the new initiative.

But everything may not be as it seems. The negotiations may have an African face, but busy in the background is a team from the US.

As the talks continue, the war in Zaire appears to be escalating. The question is whether either side has more to lose by continuing to fight than by negotiating. The government's mercenary-led counter offensive has floundered. In the eastern Zairean city of Kindu, yesterday, the rebels seemed once again to be walking all over Mr Mobutu's ill-disciplined troops.

The rebels are on a roll. But that does not necessarily make them winners. The tension between the aims of the rebels and their outside backers may be growing. Rwanda and Uganda may not support Mr Kabila much longer now they are rid of the hostile forces once given sanctuary by Zaire.

Mr Kabila, and millions of Zaireans, can only hope his recent high-profile acceptance is a sign that the international community is now as interested in the thwarted aspirations of the Zairean people as it is in political stability and the preservation of national boundaries.

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