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Mobutu returns for `unity'

Zaire's ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko stepped back into public view yesterday and said his response to rebels fighting to topple him would be known in the next 48 hours.

Mr Mobutu, looking tired and thin but walking unaided, earlier told reporters he had returned to devote himself to Zaire's higher interests, not his own.

In his first public appearance since returning from France on Friday, the President told journalists: "I am Mobutu. I have returned not to devote myself to Mobutu's interests or Mobutu's fortune as you write from time to time but to the higher interests of Zaire. That is to say our unity, our territorial integrity."

Asked about his plans, he replied: "In the next 48 hours you will know."

He received a letter fromPresident Nelson Mandela of South Africa, an attempt by Mr Mandela to broker peace between Mr Mobutu and the rebels. Mr Mandela's deputy, Thabo Mbeki, who delivered the letter, said afterwards that a United Nations peace plan for a truce and talks was at the heart of efforts to end the five-month-old civil war. Aides to Mr Mbeki said Mr Mobutu had promised a reply soon.

Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader, called on Saturday for a transitional government but said he would not work with anyone who had shared power with Mr Mobutu. He said the government should include his Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of CongoZaire "and only anti-Mobutists and anti-regime people who have never been in power and who never shared power".

As the situation deteriorates, Western governments are preparing to evacuate their nationals. The first wave of a United States military task force moved cautiously into central Africa yesterday. A C-17 transport plane from Aviano in Italy flew a contingent of mostly officers - along with equipment - to Brazzaville in Congo, just across the river from Kinshasa, the Zairean capital. The US, which has about 500 citizens in Zaire, is deploying troops in Brazzaville and in Libreville, the capital of neighbouring Gabon.

The French have had a task force in Brazzaville for several weeks and a task force from Belgium was expected there today. A small advance team from Britain is also in place.

Belgian media estimate the number of Westerners in the Zairean capital at about 7,000, including fewer than 3,000 Belgians, about 1,000 French, 500 Britons and 650 Americans.