KINSHASA, Zaire — After weeks of effort, mediators finally coaxed President Mobutu Sese Seko out of his palace for peace talks with civil war foe Laurent Kabila aboard a South African ship. But the rebel leader, who has repeatedly demanded a meeting, surprised everyone Friday and refused to come.
Left in the lurch by Kabila's last-minute decision were South African President Nelson Mandela, United Nations special envoy Mohamed Sahnoun and Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., all of whom had been working for weeks to arrange the talks to avert a violent showdown over this Zairian capital.
At a news conference in Luanda, Angola's capital, on Friday night, Kabila gave two reasons for not coming aboard the vessel: He said he was not satisfied with arrangements for his personal security, and he did not feel that he had received an adequate invitation from the meeting's organizers.
"I am worried about security on the ship," Kabila said, according to wire service reports. "No one has told me about who is there or what their role is."
After announcing his decision to South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who was in Luanda to accompany Kabila by helicopter to the talks in international waters near Zaire's Atlantic coast, the rebel leader said he would reconsider today.
"We optimistically hope that sometime [Saturday] it will start," said Aziz Pahad, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, briefing reporters aboard the ship. The ship returned to Pointe Noire, and Mobutu disembarked, planning to spend the night in that Congolese port city. Mandela, Sahnoun and Richardson remained on the vessel.
The sudden shift in Kabila's attitude caused consternation, not to mention irritation, among the diplomats who have been hoping to achieve a cease-fire and negotiated settlement to Zaire's seven-month civil war.
One diplomat, speaking in Kinshasa on the condition that he not be identified, said he would not exclude the possibility that Kabila was hesitating to meet because his soldiers are so close to an outright military victory.
But it would be "not too smart" for the Zairian guerrilla chief to offend powerful countries, such as the United States and South Africa, that he will likely have to work with in the future if he does take power, the diplomat said.
Mandela, who had flown from South Africa to attend the meeting, appeared irate, according to one source quoted by Reuters news agency. "We need to stop wasting time," Mandela reportedly said.
The unexpected events demonstrated a reversal of roles for Mobutu and Kabila. Three weeks ago, Zaire's dictator for the past 32 years still felt confident enough of his position to say he would meet Kabila only if asked "politely."
Now it is Kabila, whose steady rebel advance has turned into a juggernaut, who apparently can afford to be coy. His rebels are less than 150 miles from Kinshasa and on Friday added the northwestern city of Lisala--Mobutu's birthplace--to their conquests.
After taking Kikwit, the last major city on the path to Kinshasa, on Tuesday, the rebels by Friday were on the outskirts of Kenge, 120 miles east of Kinshasa, according to Zairian and diplomatic sources.
Despite their proximity, however, diplomats in Kinshasa said they see almost no sign of preparations for a defensive battle by government troops. Accounts from travelers indicated that the rebels were tightening their noose around the capital.
Truckers attempting to bring food to Kinshasa returned home empty Friday, saying they turned back at Mbankana, a village 50 miles east of the capital, because the road was blocked by fleeing government soldiers and the rebel advance.
The circumstances of the meeting on board the South African navy supply vessel Outeniqua added to Mobutu's humiliation even before Kabila's snub.
The once-haughty autocrat, now ill with prostate cancer, was too weak to mount the 31 steps to board the ship at Pointe Noire, where he had flown Friday.
Doctors meanwhile ruled out a helicopter ride to the vessel, saying the vibrations could also be too much for him.
Finally, after a five-hour delay, a makeshift ramp was lowered from the ship and Mobutu was driven up the steep incline in his bullet-proof limousine.
Before the meeting, Kabila had said he was prepared only to discuss Mobutu's swift departure from power. Aides to Mobutu, however, said the president wanted to obtain a cease-fire, to be followed by negotiations for a democratic transition in Zaire.
Asked whether Mobutu would announce his resignation, Mobutu's chief of staff Felix Vunduwe, said, "No. Why should he?"
Overshadowing the diplomatic maneuvers has been the rebels' swift advance, which has exceeded the expectations of military observers. "There's obviously a plan they're working to, and they're doing a very good job at it," said one diplomat.
Daniszewski, The Times' Cairo Bureau chief, is on assignment in Kinshasa.