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Zaire regime tumbles towards abyss

Troops desert Mobutu as endgame approaches, reports Mary Braid
The government of corrupt Zairean dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko, was pushed nearer the abyss yesterday when government soldiers prepared to hand over Lubumbashi, the country's second largest city, to rebels without a fight.

The advance of Laurent Kabila's rebels continues at breakneck speed, helped by the mass defection and desertion of government soldiers.

Only 48 hours after taking Mbuji-Mayi, centre of Zaire's diamond industry, the rebels have surrounded the copperbelt city of Lubumbashi, more than 100km south, and will soon control the mineral-rich southern provinces of Kasai and Shaba.

In Lubumbashi, government troops donned white arm bands to signal their switch to Mr Kabila and danced in the streets with approving citizens. They woke yesterday morning to the surprise news that the rebels had captured the town of Kipushi, just 30km away, on Sunday.

Once again the rebels seem set for a walk-over. Men claiming to be junior officers in the Zairean army called on their troops to lay down their arms and join the rebels.

President Mobutu is being repaid with wholesale disloyalty for a 32-year rule, characterised by repression and personal greed on such a scale that it has impoverished Zaire. Despite the country's huge natural resources the majority of people in Kasai and Shaba, like most Zaireans, have remained dirt poor.

"We've all changed sides," said Sergeant Kafua Otamba at the barracks of the 21st Brigade in Lubumbashi. "We're ready for the arrival of Kabila. We've suffered enough in Zaire. We must get rid of Mobutu."

It was not clear last night if the army had gone over to Kabila entirely.

But like soldiers all over the country, those asked to defend Lubumbashi have little to thank Mr Mobutu for. "We've had no pay and we have no food," Sgt Otamba said.

As Lubumbashi looked set for a relatively orderly handover, elsewhere all was chaos. Three days of talks between the rebels and Mr Mobutu's negotiators in South Africa have so far yielded nothing. They began with a stand-off, with the rebels demanding Mr Mobutu stand down and his representatives insisting on an immediate ceasefire. Rebels on a roll are hardly likely to meet that demand, especially when it comes from a tottering regime.

The country's three main political forces - President Mobutu, Mr Kabila and the Prime Minister, Etienne Tshisekedi - are all at odds. Mr Tshisekedi refused to attend the South African peace talks and Mr Kabila has condemned him for accepting the premiership for the third time under Mr Mobutu, and refused the offer of rebel seats in Mr Tshisekedi's new cabinet.

Mr Mobutu, ever the consummate and cunning politician, in approving Mr Tshisekedi's appointment seems to be making a last effort to divide and rule the opposition. He may be succeeding, for the opposition is in disarray. But if Mr Mobutu is in any doubt that the writing is on the wall he should look at the behaviour of foreign mining companies with current and prospective interests in Zaire. They are already treating Mr Kabila as boss.

De Beers, the company which controls the world's diamond market and has offices in Mbuji-Mayi, held talks with Mr Kabila at the weekend.

In rebel-controlled Kisangani, the new governor said Mr Kabila's authorities were already collecting revenue from diamond sales. "Before, all the money went straight into pockets," said Yagi Sitolo, referring to the Mobutu years during which Zaire's mineral wealth was used as the personal bank of Mr Mobutu, his relatives and generals.

Last week American Mineral Fields (AMF), the Canadian mining company, opened the first diamond buying office in Kisangani to be licensed by the rebels. "I firmly believe Kabila is going to make a better Zaire, without corruption," said Joseph Martin, an AMF director who admits his company has its sights set on mineral exploration in Shaba province.