The people of Kinshasa watched impassively as the presidential cavalcade swept through its stinking, broken streets yesterday morning, escorted by menacing troops in mirror sunglasses and armoured cars. At the airport, journalists trying to film the 66-year-old dictator's departure were hustled away by soldiers, denied one last coveted shot of his leopardskin hat ascending into an airplane.
The jet rumbled off across the Congo river, while down town a crowd of grim young men gathered to chant the name of Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader who has seized most of Zaire. Mr Mobutu, a remarkable egotist and survivor, may yet return to face Mr Kabila's guns, but he will get little thanks from his people if he does.
The purpose of Mr Mobutu's visit to Gabon is now at the centre of a massive propaganda battle to rival the shooting war in the east. Sceptics and opponents say that, with the rebels poised to take the capital, Mr Mobutu is merely using the conference as an excuse to get out while he can. Others, including the President's dwindling band of supporters, say he is flying to Libreville to seek military assistance from his fellow leaders.
Mr Mobutu's generals have told journalists that before he returns on Friday the President will obtain up to 20,000 soldiers from French-speaking countries like Gabon, Congo, Togo, Chad, the Central African Republic and even from English-speaking Nigeria. In the meantime, they say, their troops are driving back rebel forces at Kenge and Kikwit, respectively 250km and 400km to the east of the capital.
According to the pro-government newspaper Le Soft, West Africa's Francophone countries are worried about the "invasion" of Zaire by "Anglo-Saxon" Rwanda and Uganda, whose English-speaking leaders are closely linked to Mr Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces. Nigeria, it says, merely wants to score points off South Africa's President Nelson Mandela - allegedly pro Kabila - for leading criticism of the 1995 execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.
One diplomat from an influential Western embassy said he believed Mr Mobutu was serious about seeking military aid, but would be unlikely to return to Zaire if he failed to get it: "I don't think he would like to be in Kinshasa if the rebels were here," he remarked.
And despite government claims of new victories in the field, reports from the east suggest that Mr Mobutu's troops are still losing ground. A Western military observer and aid sources said yesterday that reports from Kenge confirmed that the town was still in rebel hands despite a government bid to recapture it on Tuesday.
Government forces have been driven back to Wambo river after heavy fighting, the military observer said. Several sources said that Mr Mobutu's force included several hundred fighters from Unita, the Angolan rebel movement. The government's own demoralised and undisciplined troops are believed to have played little part.
The Belgian wing of the medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres said that Catholic missionaries in Kenge were desperately trying to care for 127 people wounded in Tuesday's fighting. MSF's Dr Mit Philips said that the priests reported over 300 dead in the fighting, of whom 200 were civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed yesterday that 10 of its local volunteers were killed as they tried to tend the dead and injured at Kenge, although the circumstances of their deaths remains unclear.Reuse content