SA steps in to host peace talks for Zaire

The Zairean government and the Rwandan-backed rebels who have captured a swath of eastern Zaire seem to be on the brink of their first face-to-face peace talks in Cape Town.

Speculation that the talks were already underway reached fever pitch yesterday after President Nelson Mandela said an aircraft was ready to fly the rebel leader Laurent Kabila to South Africa for talks with the nephew and chief military adviser of Mobutu Sese Seko, the ailing Zairean President.

Mr Mandela said South Africa was merely a host for the "good" initiative launched by Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, the neighbour Zaire accuses of backing the rebels.

South African military sources claimed that Mr Kabila landed early yesterday. The United States embassy confirmed that officials were in Cape Town to bolster the peace process.

By yesterday afternoon, however, a news blackout was in place. Rusty Evans, South Africa's director-general of foreign affairs, retracted earlier confirmations that Mr Kabila was in town. "There is a great reluctance on both sides to acknowledge that they are willing to negotiate," he said.

The Zairean government insists that it will not enter into peace talks before foreign troops have been withdrawn from its territory. Yesterday, it reiterated that position following the departure of four foreign ministers on a separate diplomatic mission to Kinshasa. A few hours later it announced fresh attacks on rebel positions.

The Zaireans talk tough but their counter-offensive launched last month has failed. And while Mr Kabila's vow to be in Kinshasa by last Christmas was over-optimistic, the rebels have made greater progress than anyone predicted.

Yesterday a spokesman for South Africa's Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, denied that he had been involved in talks with Zaireans. But another government source said he was laying the foundations for an imminent meeting. In Kinshasa, Leon Kengo Wa Dondo, the Zairean Prime Minister, claimed he knew nothing about the Cape Town meeting.

Last Tuesday, the United Nations approved a five-point plan to end the conflict which threatens to engulf the entire Great Lakes region. But an African-brokered peace would be seen as a coup for the continent, and for South Africa in particular.

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