Mobutu's foes turn Kinshasa into ghost town

Opposition raises stakes to force out president

Kinshasa is preparing itself for another tense day of "ville morte" (dead town) protest as the internal opposition tries to turn the screw on President Mobutu Sese Seko's beleaguered regime.

Supporters of Etienne Tshisekedi's radical Opposition movement say they will defy a military state of emergency by staging a street demonstration today, despite warnings from the military-led government that it will use its powers to the full against any protesters.

In the first day of protests yesterday, businesses stayed closed and most people kept to their own neighbourhoods for fear of violence between government soldiers and opposition youths who clashed last week on the streets of the capital.

The normally bustling street market on the Avenue de 24 Novembre was all but empty: only the bread-sellers turned up for work. Back streets in the city centre were deserted and traffic was light on the broad Boulevard du 30 Juin.

Troops patrolled the quiet streets in trucks ready to disperse any gatherings of pro-opposition youths. Kinshasa has effectively been under military rule since last Wednesday, when rebel soldiers from Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces captured the key southern town of Lubumbashi. The rebels now control half the country, including the mineral areas from which the Mobutu regime derives most of its considerable wealth.

The only visible confrontation yesterday came outside the house of Mr Tshisekedi, the opposition leader and sacked former prime minister, where soldiers fired into the air to drive off about 40 youths who were lighting tyres and chanting for the benefit of a group of foreign journalists. The students fled, but the journalists were briefly arrested and their car was stolen by the troops and later returned.

A Belgian television crew who were filming when the soldiers arrived were fired on and their correspondent dragged from the car and arrested. He was later released unharmed. Last week journalists covering pro-Tshisekedi street protests were attacked, beaten and robbed by government troops.

Later on Mr Mobutu's new information minister, Kin-kiey Mulumba, warned that Zaire's emergency laws would be enforced to the full against citizens and foreign journalists alike. The law forbade the filming of soldiers, he said, and journalists were reporting untruths about the government and the war in the east. "Without making threats, I would like to remind you of the professionalism and ethics of your trade," he said.

Street vendor Iulana Bourolouire said the ville morte made life difficult: "If I don't work I don't eat." But he supported it: "I am for Tshisekedi and with Kabila, that's all."

After 32 years of Mr Mobutu's corrupt and heavy-handed rule, it is difficult to find anyone in Zaire, outside the regime elite, who supports the ailing President's effort to cling to power. The opposition's success in bringing the capital to a halt is the latest blow to the Mobutu regime.

"Mobutu no longer has anything to offer," said Gilbert Mundela, a member of Mr Tschisekedi's movement. He should be given a way out peacefully."

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