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World silent as Mobutu, robber baron supreme, dies

The Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, 66, has died in Morocco four months after fleeing his capital, Kinshasa. His death, after years fighting cancer, ends his embarrassing attempts to find a country which would provide him with a permanent home.

The death of the despot in the leopard-skin hat, who bled his country dry during his 32-year presidency, was met with a resounding political silence.

The United States, Mobutu's old ally in the Cold War, which turned a blind eye as he siphoned billions of dollars from state coffers into his own personal bank accounts, long ago abandoned him.

France, which had the dubious distinction of sticking by him the longest, was low key in its response to his death. Jacques Rummelhardt, foreign ministry spokesman, said that it was for historians to judge "the excesses of his years in power". The French earned the hatred of Mobutu's 40 million poverty-stricken subjects for continuing to prop up his regime long after it was expedient, and during the take-over by Laurent Kabila's rebels, Zaireans threatened to "cut up" French people in the streets.

Only Kenya's president Daniel arap Moi mourned Mobutu's passing. Mr Moi was one of the last African leaders to visit Mobutu at Gbadolite, his luxurious palace in northern Zaire from where he finally flew into exile.

Even in death Mobutu's presence continues to be an embarrassment. His son Manda said yesterday in Rabat that he would be buried in Morocco in the next few days but might be moved later. Flanked by his two brothers Kongolo and Nzanga, Manda said he did not know where his father would be buried. That would be up to King Hassan of Morocco. In recent weeks the Moroccans have asked many in Mobutu's 50-strong entourage to leave the country.

Yesterday a spokesman for the government of Zaire, now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Mobutu's family was welcome to bring him home to rest. The republic has been trying to seize Mobutu's personal fortune; by all accounts so vast it could wipe out much of the national debt of the country he left bankrupt.

Mobutu always had a brass neck about the wholesale looting of Zaire. In an interview on television in the US he once admitted his personal fortune could cover his country's debts, but he could not lend his country the money because he could not be sure he would get it back. It remains to be seen whether gaining access to Mobutu's stolen billions will be easier now he is dead.

Mobutu came to power in a coup in 1965, five years after Belgium pulled out of Africa's second largest country. At first he was seen as a strongman who could hold together a huge, unstable country comprising hundreds of tribes and language groups. In the Seventies he was feted by the US, which used the former Zaire as a springboard for operations into neighbouring Angola where Western-backed Unita rebels were locked in civil war with a Cuban- and Soviet-backed government. Because Mobutu was useful in the fight against Communism the brutality and repressiveness of his regime was ignored.

Optimists yesterday celebrated Mobutu's death as marking the end of a shameful period in Africa's post-colonial history. The breed of tyrannical presidents-for-life which he represented, they say, is dying out, as a new type of leader - personified by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni - emerges. The new breed, though not Western-style democrats, are opposed to corruption and in favour of good governance.

But while Mobutu's suffering has ended it is not certain that his country's has. Mobutu left in ruins a nation blessed with sufficient natural resources to be among the richest in Africa. Laurent Kabila is struggling against incredible odds. His disparate rebel alliance is said to be splitting and Mr Kabila is struggling to maintain control. It is yet to be seen whether Mobutu's horrific legacy can be overcome.

Obituary, page 16