Mobutu enters first talks with rebel leader

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The Independent Online
Pointe Noire - Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko left his country's capital of Kinshasa yesterday for the first face-to-face talks with rebel leader Laurent Kabila.

Mr Mobutu has insisted he would never bow to Mr Kabila's demand to resign, but his illness and the international pressure to step down may force him to do so. The United States and other countries want a cease-fire in Zaire's civil war, the establishment of a transitional government that includes rebels and opposition parties, and a plan for free, fair elections.

After initially refusing to board a helicopter at Pointe Noire which was to fly him to a South African naval vessel for the talks, Mr Mobutu eventually arrived on the SAS Outeniqua late yesterday afternoon. Zairian Foreign Minister Gerard Kamanda wa Kamanda said the vibration of the helicopter ride would have been too hard on Mr Mobutu, 66, who is suffering from prostate cancer.

U.S. envoy Bill Richardson, who has been in the region since Monday brokering the peace talks, said "the main elements of any agreement will be dealt with by the Zairians themselves.

"In my view, this meeting will produce a process that involves a transfer of power and hopefully a transitional, inclusive government," he added.

South African President Nelson Mandela was already aboard the ship to help mediate the talks. "We are dealing with two outstanding leaders who are conscious of the importance of an amiable settlement," Mr Mandela said. "I am confident they will realise the importance of a peaceful settlement. I know few leaders who have made military gains and nevertheless been committed to peace as Mr Kabila has."

State television in Harare, Zimbabwe, yesterday quoted Mr Kabila as saying the talks would be postponed until Saturday"because Mobutu has changed his mind again".

Once all parties were aboard the ship, it set sail for Soyo, an Angolan coastal town at the point where the Zaire-Angola borders meet. The talks are to be held in a windowless, air-conditioned container aboard the ship and will be presided over by Mr Mandela and U.N. special envoy Mohamed Sahnoun.

An American diamond miner in Lubumbashi, meanwhile, said troops from Angola as well as Angolan tanks and heavy equipment were involved in the rebel push toward the capital. The United States has warned Angola not to get involved in the conflict in Zaire.

Angolan Foreign Minister Venancio de Moura denied reports that Angolan troops were fighting alongside the rebels.

"Once again, we categorically deny (these reports). We want for there to be a peaceful process in Zaire, which will modify the regime which for about 32 years systematically destabilised Angola," de Moura said. Angola's formerly Marxist government has strong reasons to hope for the fall of Mobutu, who allowed Angolan rebels to ship weapons through Zaire for 20 years.