Zairean rebel fails to turn up for talks

Mediators lose patience as Kinshasans turn capital into 'dead city'

Last minute international efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Zaire's civil war appeared to falter yesterday when rebel leader Laurent Kabila failed to show for talks aboard the South African supply ship the Outeniqua.

Five hours after the talks, aimed at bringing President Mobutu Sese Seko's 32-year dictatorship to a peaceful end should have begun, President Mobutu and the talks' sponsor, President Nelson Mandela, were still waiting in the Congolese port of Pointe-Noire for Mr Kabila to turn up.

The rebel leader was in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, though Joe Modise, the South African Defence Minister, had been sent by helicopter to Soyo, further south, to collect him, as previously arranged.

The South Africans, who had been reluctant to board the ship without an agreement on a transfer of power, made it clear that this was the final diplomatic effort.

Officially, the talks are still due to go ahead this morning. But the two sides are so far apart that it is unclear whether the meeting can go ahead.

South Africa's good will was sorely tested during the first talks when it took two days to get the men on board the Outeniqua at the same time.

In the 10 days since South Africa staged the first meeting between the dictator and the rebel, the country's deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, has shuttled across the continent trying to sell a power-sharing deal to President Mobutu and Mr Kabila which would give the rebels 60 per cent of the seats in a parliament, and would leave the Mobutists and the opposition to share the rest.

President Mobutu would cede power to a transitional authority, which could then hand over power to Mr Kabila, saving the President's face. But until now the rebels have insisted they are interested in nothing less than a direct and immediate transfer of power from President Mobuto to Mr Kabila.

Mr Kabila's rebel forces are within 100km of Kinshasa and are pledged to take it by the weekend, if talks fail. The rebellion, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, began in October and the rebels now hold most of the country.

Yesterday Kinshasa's 5 million residents stayed home in response to an opposition call for a ville morte (dead city) day, In protest at proposals that would allow President Mobuto to transfer power to Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo, a controversial Roman Catholic cleric.

The streets of the city were deserted except for groups of Kinshasans listening to radio for news of the talks they had hoped would prevent a battle for the capital. A handful of gravediggers at the local Kinsuka cemetery were among the minority that chose to work.

In a city long collapsed, they are paid less than a dollar a month to bury the dead but turn up every day none the less. "We are working out of respect for the dead," said Joseph Mayala, 35, a father of two, who relies on direct payments from bereaved relatives of a few dollars or some beer to dig a hole.

Tens of thousands have been buried at Kinsuka since it opened in 1978. Like Kinshasa, it is falling apart. It has reverted to jungle because few relatives can afford to pay for their graves to be tended. Crumbling concrete crosses, marked RIP in cheap, runny black paint, are lost in shoulder high grass infested with snakes.

The workers stuff leaves up their noses to kill the stench as they work because the government no longer provides masks or equipment.

Michel Manyanya, too old to know his age, said he keeps up his job in the hope of a return to better government and decent pay.

Asked about President Mobutu's responsibility for the dilapidated cemetery and city he becomes agitated. Like many elderly Zaireans he is still terrified to criticise President Mobutu out loud. "Just look around you," he says "see for yourself."

His younger work mates were less reticent. They said they hated their president and hoped he was about to stand down. They would accept anyone, with no guarantees for the future or democracy, in his place.

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