Zaire's revolution nears climax as new order sweeps its way to power

Rebels push towards capital as elite units fade away

As Zairean peace talks inched forward yesterday, rebel soldiers east of the capital were pushing ahead to ensure there could be only one outcome to the seven-month-old civil war.

Reports from diplomatic and military sources in Kinshasa said that last Friday soldiers of Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces passed through the town of Kenge, 150 miles to the east of the capital, and were advancing rapidly in a column of trucks. Yesterday Mr Kabila claimed that his troops would be within 60 miles of Kinshasa when night fell.

There are believed to be few, if any, organised government forces between the rebels and the capital. A series of bridges, reported to have been blown up by the retreating government army last week are now said to be intact. Diplomatic sources say the rebels could launch an assault on Kinshasa within days should Mr Kabila fail to get what he wants from the ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Little doubt remained that the peace negotiations would bring an end to 31 years of Mobutist rule - whether or not a deal was signed. Reports from the United States say that the 66-year-old dictator has signalled his intention to resign in a letter to President Bill Clinton. Diplomatic sources in Kinshasa said the Zairean president was merely holding out for a transition deal that would give his supporters in the Zairean establishment a chance to deny absolute power to Mr Kabila.

Sources connected to the Zairean government said the president would offer to leave Zaire for "health reasons", handing power over - in the constitutionally prescribed manner - to the speaker of the parliamentary assembly.

At present the position is empty, but favourite for the job is Monsignor Laurent Monsengwo, a well-respected Roman Catholic archbishop who helped launch Zaire's ill-starred democratisation process in 1991. The new speaker would be charged with appointing an interim president, probably a currently serving minister who would co-operate with the rebels in organising elections.

Only the first part of this offer was likely to have much appeal for the increasingly hard-line Mr Kabila who, until a ceasefire is in place, has the opportunity to seize power. The rebel advance has accelerated in recent days, and reports from the city of Kikwit, captured early last week, say the airport is being used for an intensive airlift of supplies.

One source close to Zaire's military leadership says that a force of 1,500 elite presidential guards was ordered towards Kenge on Friday to launch a final counter-attack. Paid a special bonus in advance, many soldiers failed to turn up. Only around 300 are believed to have departed: their fate is unknown.

The remaining presidential guards and Zairean soldiers in Kinshasa seem to be making no effort to prepare defence for the capital, nor for its vital airport. If there is a battle for Kinshasa, it seems likely to be short.

In Kinshasa itself the streets were unusually quiet yesterday. Tensions have been raised not only by the political situation but by a closely linked monetary crisis. Last Thursday the bankrupt government of prime minister General Lukulia Bolongo announced that it was going to make a second attempt to issue 100,000-Zaire notes - worth about 30 pence - in order to pay public servants and soldiers.

A similar attempt several months ago failed when people in Kinshasa refused to accept the new notes as tender - they were nicknamed "prostates", in reference to Mr Mobutu's recent surgery for prostate cancer. The previous attempts to conjure new money into existence in 1993 sparked massive looting when government troops realised they had been paid in worthless currency.

This, coupled with the looming prospect of a power vacuum if Mr Mobutu resigns, is causing fears that a further bout of rioting and looting could be imminent. Last Friday banks failed to reopen after the 1 May public holiday. It is not clear whether they will be open today.

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