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Zaire Rebel Chief on Ship for Talks

Africa: He boards vessel to await meeting today with President Mobutu after not showing up Friday.


KINSHASA, Zaire — Rebel leader Laurent Kabila finally boarded a South African naval ship late Saturday to await talks today with President Mobutu Sese Seko, as indications grew that the Zairian head of state's crumbling military fortunes could soon force his resignation.

Mobutu and Kabila are scheduled to hold their first face-to-face meeting on the ship, to be hosted by South African President Nelson Mandela. South African officials voiced optimism that the talks will finally take place.

The meeting, originally to have been held Friday, was postponed when Kabila failed to come that day and then delayed his arrival Saturday until after 10 p.m., citing concerns for his safety on board the ship.

U.S. officials described the situation going into the talks as fluid.

"From a mediation standpoint, it could still go either way," one official said. "Getting them to talk is actually the easy part. Getting them to agree is going to be much tougher."

Although Kabila's arrival on board the Outeniqua was considered a positive sign, diplomats expressed fear that the rebel leader had been deliberately stalling the talks in order to press his military advantage.

And senior White House aides in Washington late Saturday said Mobutu still had not agreed to Kabila's only demand--that the president resign immediately, ending his 32 years of dictatorial rule. The U.S. officials said Mobutu, in a letter to President Clinton, pledged to act to preserve Zaire but stopped short of agreeing to resign, a step the Clinton administration had hoped he would take.

Not waiting for negotiations, Kabila's rebel troops seized the town of Kenge on Saturday and raced west to within 90 miles of Kinshasa, the capital.

Another group of fighters was closing in on Mobutu's opulent palace--nicknamed the "Versailles of the Jungle"--in Gbadolite, about 700 miles northeast of the capital. And travelers reported yet another group of rebels coming from the Angolan border, threatening to cut Kinshasa off from the southwest.

In the city itself, streets were eerily quiet Saturday night. No cars were moving, and residents said they expected to soon greet Kabila's rebels one way or another.

"That's it. Mobutu is finished," said Marcel, a chauffeur, on hearing state radio reporting the fall of Kenge. "Now they [the rebels] can come here easily."

Outdoor markets were busy as residents who could afford it bought corn, cassava, rice and firewood to tide them over in case a battle envelops the city. But there were no signs of military movements, adding to the conviction of many residents that the army was prepared to turn over Kinshasa without a fight. Many in the city speculated that Mobutu might not even come back from the negotiations.


The letter to Clinton was handed to U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, and its contents were communicated to Washington this weekend. It was described by White House officials as "forward-leaning" but not sufficiently clear to resolve the crisis.

"He says that he understands the need to 'do well' by his country, but he does not say he will leave," one U.S. official said of Mobutu.

The letter was described as "fudging" the issue enough so that a reader could either draw comfort from it or not. "I would definitely not characterize it as a letter of resignation," the official said. "The situation has not yet moved in the direction of resolution yet."

Kabila made his way by helicopter to the Outeniqua, which remained docked in Pointe-Noire in neighboring Congo. The arrival followed a tense day of false starts and unexplained delays. U.S. officials close to the talks said they were "very angry" and charged that Kabila had "lied" about his willingness to take part.

South African officials conceded Saturday that some of the security concerns cited by Kabila may have been valid.

"We let people on board yesterday who obviously weren't journalists but were posing as journalists," said Pieter Swanepoel, a spokesman for the South African Foreign Affairs Ministry.

South African and U.S. sources close to the talks told reporters Saturday morning that they were aiming for an agreement in which Mobutu would step aside for "health reasons." The 66-year-old president, who has prostate cancer, would then be allowed to appoint an interim president, and Kabila's forces would enter Kinshasa peacefully in coordination with the Zairian military.

The mood among Mobutu's entourage was dire, according to a source who had spoken to one of the president's aides. He said members of Mobutu's party, as they awaited the talks, were not expecting to come back to Kinshasa immediately and were mainly concerned about the safety of their relatives.

In another development, the U.S. State Department on Saturday again urged U.S. citizens to leave Zaire, warning of a "deteriorating security and political situation" and the "potential for unrest throughout the country."

Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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