Mobutu shuns talks as rebels tighten noose

Zaire civil war: Peace meeting hopes dented as Kinshasa looks set to fall
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The Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was said to have pulled out of peace talks with the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, late last night.

A source from the US envoy Bill Richardson's delegation said: "Mobutu told Richardson there is no way he could be travelling to a ship for talks with Kabila. So once again the venue for the face-to-face meeting remains a problem."

As rebels closing in on the Zairean capital Kinshasa earlier yesterday claimed to have overrun the strategic town of Kikwit, South Africa announced that President Mobutu and Mr Kabila had finally agreed to a first face- to-face meeting on a South African naval vessel off Zaire's Atlantic coast. But hours later came the news that President Mobutu had pulled out.

After South Africa announced the talks breakthrough following weeks of shuttle diplomacy by the United States, United Nations and South Africa, Mr Kabila confirmed reports that the talks would be held on the ship in international waters, off the coast of Zaire and the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.

A South African government spokesman refused to confirm that the navy ship Outeniqua had already left the Cape port of Simonstown, headed for Zaire. The talks were to be presided over by President Nelson Mandela and were expected to start later this week. The off-shore venue was inspired, since the search for a mutually acceptable African capital for talks had proved difficult.

It appears that President Mobutu's refusal to travel to South Africa for talks for health reasons - he is suffering from prostate cancer - has forced negotiators to take South Africa to him. The venue also suited Mr Kabila who can commute from Angola - a long-time enemy of the Mobutu regime.

That the naval ship could be considered South African territory suits international brokers who are keen to present any peace deal as South Africa's first major political initiative on the continent, and an African solution to an African crisis.

The US, however, continues to play a major role in diplomatic initiatives. The announcement of the talks in Johannesburg came as President Mobutu was meeting Mr Richardson, the US Ambassador to the UN at his residence outside Kinshasa.

It is believed Mr Richardson flew to Kinshasa to tell the corrupt President Mobutu, a Cold War ally of the US for three decades, that the game was finally up. With the rebels' relentless advance continuing, Mr Richardson was expected to ask the man who has grown obscenely rich at the expense of his poverty-ridden country, to stand down and prevent a bloody battle for Kinshasa, which is is awash with rumours that the rebels will soon take the city and President Mobutu is increasingly beleaguered.

Kikwit is linked to the capital 450km away by a good road. Kinshasa is in the grip of a pincer offensive with rebel forces advancing steadily from the east and approaching, for the first time, from the west, through Angola, and according to the Zairean government, aided by Angolan troops.

After the meeting, the President left Mr Richardson to do his talking for him. Mr Kabila however, was in triumphant mood. He was going on board the South African ship he said to "discuss Mr Mobutu's departure". If a short ceremony, during which the President handed over power, did not take place the rebels would soon be in Kinshasa to oust him.