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Talks on Zaire Fail, Setting Stage for Attack on Capital

Africa: Rebel leader refuses to join negotiations. Mediators plead for peaceful solution on Kinshasa.


ABOARD THE SAS OUTENIQUA — A last-chance effort to broker peace talks between warring sides in the seven-month Zairian civil war collapsed Wednesday night, setting the stage for a full-scale rebel assault on the capital, Kinshasa.

United Nations special envoy Mohamed Sahnoun said rebel leader Laurent Kabila had refused to attend a second and final round of face-to-face talks with the embattled Zairian president, Mobutu Sese Seko, aboard this South African naval ship.

"It's a great disappointment for us as mediators," a grim-faced Sahnoun told reporters in a shipboard briefing. "We worked very hard to organize this meeting."

The desperate diplomatic campaign was aimed at crafting a peaceful transfer of power in Zaire and averting a rebel attack on the capital of Africa's third-largest nation. But after Kabila's refusal to participate, Sahnoun offered little hope that a peaceful resolution could still be found to "avoid a battle for Kinshasa with high casualties."

"I would like to simply add, we will not give up," he said. "We will work to avoid another humanitarian tragedy. There is already too much of that in Zaire."

South African President Nelson Mandela, who was to host the talks, pleaded for a peaceful takeover in Zaire. "There should be no bloodshed in Kinshasa, no destruction of property, no looting," he said gravely as he prepared to board his jet home late Wednesday night.

Sahnoun said the talks collapsed when Kabila insisted that the ship be moved away from the docks in Pointe-Noire, Congo, and into international waters because he feared for his security in Congo, one of the few African nations still friendly to Mobutu.

The unexpected demand was similar to those that delayed the first round of shipboard talks by several days earlier this month.

Mandela, who flew to Pointe-Noire early Wednesday and had repeatedly telephoned Mobutu and Kabila to try to bring them together, rejected Kabila's demand because the rebel leader had agreed to the meeting by the dock and appeared to be stalling.

"There was a telephone call to President Mandela and [Kabila] requested that the ship should go to the high seas," Sahnoun said. "And President Mandela reminded him he already had agreed to come to Pointe-Noire. President Mandela said the ship would not go to the high seas for the meeting. Therefore the meeting will not be held."

Mandela, who spent the day behind closed doors in Pointe-Noire at the villa of Congo's president, Pascal Lissouba, then invited Kabila to South Africa for talks, a South African official said.

Kabila spent the day in Cabinda, on the west coast of Angola. South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad said Kabila was supposed to have flown to Soyo, another Angolan port farther south, but didn't have enough fuel.

Mandela and South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki made a personal visit to Mobutu's quarters, diplomatic sources said. The Zairian leader, who had flown to Pointe-Noire early Wednesday and spent the day with his advisors in a seaside villa, had to be roused from bed, and talks among the three lasted an hour, they reported.

Pahad said Mandela also consulted with numerous African leaders, as well as officials in Washington and Paris.

The long day had begun with cheerful predictions by South African officials aboard ship that significant progress was likely. At 5:30 p.m., Pahad still was insisting that "final talks" could begin today.

Sahnoun had signaled his doubts earlier in the afternoon, saying, "For the moment, we are waiting for Godot." Pahad said Mobutu gave mediators an eight- to 10-page document, written in French, about 5 p.m. in response to previous diplomatic proposals to resolve the crisis.

"For some days we have been waiting for a response from the government," Pahad said. "We will now translate it, discuss it and assess it."

The failure of the talks added to the tension and fear already gripping Kinshasa. Kabila's legions are fast closing in on the city, the final prize for his guerrilla army.

Mobutu, 67, has ruled Zaire as a despot for 32 years but now suffers from terminal prostate cancer. It was not immediately clear if he would try to return to Kinshasa today, as he had planned, or whether he could fly home before rebels seized the airport there.

In Kinshasa, which was virtually deserted Wednesday as residents observed a general strike, the collapse of the talks led to speculation that Mobutu's generals might be preparing their own solution to the crisis. One scenario had it that with Mobutu now safely out of town, the Zairian armed forces would change sides, secure Kinshasa's airport and help the rebels start landing personnel and equipment here.

The rebels are reported to have thousands of troops standing by in the captured towns of Kikwit and Kananga, which have airports. They are also reported to have access to aircraft from Angola, as well as the ability to hire or commandeer charters in the territory they control.

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