Zaire rivals test Mandela's patience - and sea legs

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The Independent Online
The South African supply ship Outeniqua remained in the Congo port of Pointe-Noire yesterday as attempts to bring the Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, and the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, together for their first face-to-face talks, hung in the balance.

Last night Mr Kabila arrived on board the ship with the South African deputy president, Thabo Mbeki. Mr Mobutu was in Pointe-Noire, and officials said he would only board the ship when Mr Kabila was on board. The rebel chief refused to attend the talks at the last minute on Friday, complaining of lax security and too much attention paid to the Mobutu entourage. South African officials conceded yesterday that security had been loose. Diplomats were thought to be aiming at an agreement in which Mr Mobutu would step down for health reasons and appoint an interim president until elections could be held. This would allow Mr Kabila and his forces, which now control nearly three quarters of the country, to enter the capital, Kinshasa, peacefully. Meanwhile, rebel forces claimed yesterday to have taken control of Kenge, the last major town on the way to the capital, about 190kms (115 miles) away.

On Friday night Mr Kabila failed to turn up at a rendezvous point 15 miles offshore, where President Nelson Mandela and President Mobutu - and the world's press - were waiting for him on board the ship. He had been expected to fly from the Angolan capital of Luanda by helicopter with Mr Mbeki, to meet his political enemy. But Mr Mbeki was flown in alone, and the Outeniqua turned forlornly back to shore. Many expected Mr Mandela, kept waiting on the ship for a second day yesterday, to give up and go home. But in a brave - or foolhardy - move, the South Africans and the United Nations envoy, Mohammed Sahnoun, lobbied both sides through the night and into yesterday, trying yet again to find a political solution to the rebellion in Zaire and avoid a bloody battle for Kinshasa, the only Zairean city yet to fall to the rebels during their seven-month uprising.

Instead of flying home, Mr Mandela was set last night to spend a second night in the second officer's small cabin on the Outeniqua, while Aziz Pahad, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, announced that the continent's most on-off talks were back on again - at least for the moment.

South Africa's intervention in the crisis in Zaire marks its first major diplomatic initiative on the continent, and the ANC government is desperately keen that it works. But the proceedings have already descended into farce more than once: when President Mobutu finally turned up on Friday, the first problem was finding a dignified way of getting the ailing leader, who is suffering from prostate cancer and is extremely frail, on board. The Zairean leader, too weak to climb the 31 stairs on to the vessel, was eventually driven aboard up a goods ramp.

Yesterday Captain E Lochner said that all kinds of methods had been considered to get the president on the Outeniqua, including hoisting him up in a steel cage. Injury to Mr Mobutu's dignity was no doubt a factor in this being ruled out.

Yesterday Mr Pahad said all of the rebel leader's outstanding concerns had been taken care of. Security had been tightened on the Outeniqua and, significantly, the US delegation on board earlier were no longer to be seen. Bob Richardson, the US ambassador to the UN, caused friction between American and South African negotiators after making an apparently successful last-minute intervention in negotiations before the peace summit. On Thursday night Mr Kabila threatened to pull out, claiming he had been misled by Mr Richardson.