Mobutu stays away as rebels reject peace bid

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President Mobutu Sese Seko failed to return home to Zaire yesterday after his three-day meeting in Gabon with Central African allies produced a peace plan which was rejected by the rebels seeking to topple him.

As a range of diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful solution in Zaire's civil war continued, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's Deputy President, met the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, in the Zairean town of Lubumbashi. As on Sunday, when the first face-to-face talks between the Zairean President and the rebel leader ended, Mr Mbeki was optimistic about finding a diplomatic solution.

But yesterday the rebels, advancing on Kinshasa, continued to insist the only result they were interested in was Mr Mobutu's resignation and a transfer of power to Mr Kabila.

After a meeting in which he persuaded Mr Kabila to attend a second round of talks next week, Mr Mbeki said: "Mr Kabila says he is committed to peaceful resolution ... He is willing to give diplomacy a chance, and our understanding is he will not proceed with the military campaign until after next week's meeting."

Despite South Africa's claims of rebel undertakings that the military campaign would be halted until the meeting took place, fighting continues. Last night Mr Mbeki changed plans to meet Mr Mobutu in Kinshasa and flew instead to the Gabonese capital, Libreville. There he will try to persuade the ailing dictator to attend a second meeting on the South African supply ship, the Outeniqua, moored off Pointe-Noire, Congo. He is carrying an invitation from President Nelson Mandela.

Sunday's meeting was more symbolic than substantial. The only thing both sides agreed on was that Mr Mobutu should go. But they were poles apart on how and when that should happen, and who should pick up the reins when he had gone.

Since that meeting, Zairean government forces and the rebels have fought a fierce battle for the town of Kenge, 125 miles east of Kinshasa. The rebels now control the town but 200 civilians and 100 government soldiers are said to have died. There are unconfirmed reports that Angolan Unita rebels and Angolan government troops took sides in the battle: Unita backing the Zairean government and Angolan government soldiers siding with the rebels. The Gabonese summit produced proposals for a transfer of presidential power to a parliamentary speaker to allow the country's first democratic elections.

Mr Mobutu, it was agreed, would not stand. There are suggestions the speaker, tipped to be the respected Catholic Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo, could then hand the presidency to Mr Kabila, saving Mr Mobutu the indignity of doing so directly.

The international community's main concern is for a peaceful transition, followed by speedy democratic elections. It is not certain, however, that Mr Kabila would see going to the polls as a priority.