Rebels advance as Kinshasa's rich party on

Rebels are advancing in the east, Western troops are lurking across the river, and in town one of the President's closest allies has just denounced him, yet in Zaire's plundered capital of Kinshasa life goes on with an air of surreal normality.

While most Western diplomats have already written off President Mobutu Sese Seko's prospects for political survival, the bought politicians and corrupt businessmen who have benefited most from his 32-year reign continue to live out the good life, apparently indifferent to the impending storm.

Yesterday brought reports of the fall of Kamina, 400 miles north-west of Lubumbashi, the capital of Shaba province in the south-eastern copperbelt, and the next declared target of the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila. On Saturday, the rebels took Kasenga, another key town to the north-west of Lubumbashi, while ex-prime minister Jean Nguz A Karl-I-Bond switched his loyalties to Mr Kabila.

For many wealthy Kinshasans, however, the weekend was another opportunity for golf or tennis, or a chance to shop at the Intercontinental Hotel's expensive boutiques.

Even the ordinary people of Kinshasa, who have helped government troops to pillage the city twice since 1991, seem caught up in the fatalistic mood. Two weeks ago, the fall of Kisangani, 1,300km to the east, set the capital abuzz with rumours of imminent coups and outbreaks of looting. Western diplomats believe these fears have receded - for the time being.

The presence of 2,000 troops from Belgium, France and the United States just across Congo River in Brazzaville is believed to have reduced the likelihood of a fresh outbreak of street violence. As for political insurrection, most Kinshasans seem to want rid of the Mobutists but are willing to leave the job to someone else.

"We don't know that Kabila will be any better, but we know we need a change," said Alphonse, a driver by trade. "Thirty years of Mobutu is much too long."

The calm in Kinshasa may reflect a dangerous delusion in Mobutist circles. One Western diplomat claims that there are still politicians and soldiers in Kinshasa who believe Mr Mobutu can pull off an escape act, that France might still come to their aid or that the rebellion is merely an invasion by Rwandan Tutsis.

Some observers believe that, despite President Mobutu's illness, his regime is playing for time, hoping to put off real negotiations with Mr Kabila's rebels until after a ceasefire is somehow imposed by the international community.

There are rumours that he may reinstate veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi as prime minister, in an attempt to split the opposition.

The rebel advance is pushing towards the main diamond and copper mining centres of Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi, source of most of his regime's wealth and power. Diplomats believe that, denied access to his revenue, Mr Mobutu's regime will collapse without any need for further military action.

Few believe that a rebel victory will cause Zaire to splinter immediately along ethnic or provincial fault lines. Instead, with city after city clamouring for Mr Kabila to come and liberate them, the man once reviled for breaking the nation is now being asked to unify it.