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Mobutu defies rebel threat to take capital deadline to surrender

Zaire's beleaguered president will not bow to ultimatum, writes Ed O'Loughlin in Kinshasa
With a deadline for his effective surrender about to expire, Zaire's beleaguered President, Mobutu Sese Seko, seems determined to ignore the threats and warnings from rebel leader Laurent Kabila.

The streets of Kinshasa were calm yesterday, despite a three-day ultimatum issued on Wednesday by Mr Kabila for President Mobutu to stand down, or face further military action. And while rebel radio broadcasts have warned foreign residents to leave Kinshasa, there was no sign of a mass exodus of Westerners.

The rebels, who took the key southern mining centre of Lubumbashi in midweek, claim to have military units within 200km of Kinshasa, and to have infiltrated fifth-columnists into the capital itself. Western diplomats are sceptical of this claim and believe the nearest rebel forces are still several hundred kilometres away, across the rainforests and broken roads of central Zaire.

A Pentagon spokesman said in Washington on Tuesday that 1,200 US Marines and 400 other military personnel are in a state of high alert in the region, ready to go into Kinshasa to rescue the 430 US citizens living there. France, Belgium and Britain also have contingents on standby in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, just across the Congo River from Kinshasa.

Western diplomats in Zaire appear to have embarked on a delicate mission to persuade Mr Mobutu to stand aside, but without provoking a panicked reaction from the regime. This week Belgium and the US, both former allies of Mr Mobutu, called on him to give up power. On Thursday the US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said any strategic reason for backing Mr Mobutu had ended with the Cold War.

"Considering his state of health, the fact that all the institutions he created are decrepit, bankrupt, not credible and that the rebels have taken over at least half of the country, it was necessary to call again publicly for this kind of transition," Mr Burns said.

That same day, however, the American ambassador to Zaire, Daniel Simpson, was among several Western diplomats who paid courtesy calls on General Lubulia Bolongo, the military Prime Minister appointed by Mr Mobutu when he introduced a state of emergency. Afterwards Mr Simpson said he still believed Mr Mobutu had a role to play in ensuring peaceful change in Zaire.

"I don't think that Mobutu or any other one person is responsible for all the problems of this country," he said.

Yesterday General Bolongo announced a 28-member national salvation government, with top army generals in change of the defence and interior ministries.

Speculation in Kinshasa centres not so much on whether Mr Mobutu's rule will end, as when and how. If Mr Mobutu flees, he is likely to seek refuge in the south of France, where he owns a luxurious villa and where he has recently undergone treatment for cancer.

President Mobutu has shown himself to be a great survivor in his 32 years of rule, and few observers are yet prepared to write him off. Diplomats believe that some members of Mr Mobutu's entourage are still urging him to play his hand out to the end, as the President's abdication would rob them of any lingering chance they have to hold on to Zaire's vast mineral wealth.