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Zaire Rebel Leader Resists Pressure to Keep His Word

Africa: Despite pledges of U.S. support, Kabila backs off election vow. Failure to attend talks angers officials.

May 15, 1997|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The United States, trying to help shape the future of Zaire after neglecting the rebellion there until its final phase, secretly has pledged $10 million and persuaded the European Union to promise $50 million to try to entice rebel leader Laurent Kabila to conduct elections soon after his looming takeover, senior Clinton administration officials say.

But Kabila has told U.S. diplomats that he will not commit to elections for up to 24 months, triggering growing unease in Washington about the political outlook in Zaire. Meanwhile, Kabila's last-minute failure to show up Wednesday for a second and pivotal round of face-to-face negotiations with ailing Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko caused angered U.S. officials to drop restrained diplomatic references to the rebel chief.

"Kabila has walked over everyone--the United Nations, the United States, the Organization of African Unity and every other party that is trying to save Zaire from a blood bath," a key U.S. official said. "Everyone's quite angry."

U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, who recently returned from 15 days of mediating the African crisis, telephoned Kabila and Mobutu on Tuesday to urge both to show up for Wednesday's talks--sponsored by the United Nations and South Africa--and to come to agreement on a peaceful hand-over of power. Kabila had pledged to Richardson that he would attend.

A team of U.S. diplomatic and intelligence personnel has been frantically working both sides of the crisis--but with limited success--as the transition moves into its final hours.

U.S. concern has shifted to alarm and even disillusionment as Kabila now distances himself from early promises to the international community, particularly a short transition to democratic elections and implementation of human rights for the dozens of ethnic groups in Africa's third-largest country.

The closer Kabila has come to a military victory, the further he has seemed to move from political compromise.

"He even talked about waiting 36 months--a full three years--for elections. He's now backed down to two years, but there is a lot of concern about what his intentions are," a Western envoy said Wednesday.

The administration fears that a protracted time frame would open the way to other pretexts for delaying elections.

Added a U.S. official: "If he wants our support, we have told him he will have to deal with our concerns. But he wants to be the big man, and, in the end, he will do what he wants."

The financial pledges from the U.S. and Europe to help in what would be Zaire's first truly democratic elections reflect the scramble to develop a joint Western strategy to prevent prolonged one-man or one-party rule after a transition, according to administration officials. The plan was orchestrated largely by the U.S. during recent talks with European allies after France finally ended unilateral efforts to help Mobutu.

But Kabila so far has not taken the bait, the officials say.

Still, Clinton administration officials said they will continue to try to work with Kabila.

"He's a difficult man to deal with because he too often tells people what they want to hear rather than what he really wants to do. But at this point there is little choice," a well-placed U.S. official said.

Also Wednesday, U.S. and U.N. officials were trying to find out more about reports of an alleged massacre around Mbandaka, a town behind Kabila's lines reportedly "littered" with bodies, Western diplomats said.

Although no one has charged rebel forces with responsibility, Kabila's troops have made it difficult to gain access to the area near Zaire's border with Congo.

As rebels closed in on the capital, Kinshasa, on Wednesday, administration sources began predicting that the crisis will probably climax this weekend, either with Mobutu's departure as president or the rebels' capture of the capital.

As the apparent end of Mobutu's regime nears, U.S. officials have become equally frustrated with his efforts to remain in power.

Despite pressure, the U.S. was unable to persuade Mobutu not to return to Zaire from a conference in Gabon last weekend.

Earlier this month, Richardson laid out a candid and tough U.S. assessment of his prospects, but Zaire's self-proclaimed "president for life" believed aides who have not given him a realistic view of the situation, U.S. officials said.

Mobutu is now depending on troops dispatched by former Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi to defend Kinshasa and protect him--and to help get him safely out of Zaire, if necessary.

Wednesday night, Mobutu was in neighboring Congo after failed efforts to bring him and Kabila together for a second round of negotiations.

Savimbi's troops were also the key factor in a recent battle around the town of Kenge.

"That's the only reason there was so much resistance," the Western envoy said.

Throughout Angola's two-decade-long civil war, Mobutu provided aid, arms and an outlet for Savimbi, who now heads his nation's official opposition.

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