KINSHASA, Zaire — After more than three decades of ruthless and corrupt rule, President Mobutu Sese Seko fled with members of his family and key aides early Friday, apparently relinquishing power before an expected takeover of this nervous capital by advancing rebel soldiers.
Africa's longest-serving despot was chauffeured from his palace shortly after dawn in a small car, rather than his usual stretch limousine, in a heavily guarded motorcade of about 10 vehicles, witnesses said.
The convoy raced through the deserted streets to the international airport, where Mobutu and his entourage took off about 9 a.m. in a Boeing 727. Trucks carried so much luggage that some had to be left on the tarmac.
State-run television said Mobutu, who is dying of prostate cancer, went to rest at his pink marble palace in Gbadolite, his ancestral village in northern Zaire. But Western diplomats said they expect him to head to Morocco soon and ultimately go into exile at his villa on the French Riviera, one of the many bolt-holes he has prepared abroad.
"He's gone," a Western ambassador said. "He's not coming back. . . . It's the end of an era."
Asked why he was so sure, the envoy said: "It was either leave or get captured. There is nothing that's going to happen here that would allow him to come back now or resume power. It's unimaginable."
Meanwhile, one of the generals who advised Mobutu to abandon the capital to the rebels was assassinated by a Zairian soldier, the Associated Press quoted a Western diplomat as saying today.
Gen. Marc Mahele Lieko Bokungu, the deputy prime minister, defense minister and army chief of staff, was among the Zairian generals who were trying to make contact with rebel leaders to arrange their entry into the city.
The diplomat, who refused to be further identified, said the soldier apparently accused Mahele of being a traitor and shot him about midnight Friday during the general's visit to the presidential military complex.
Diplomats had been relying on Mahele to ensure order after Mobutu's departure. Before the general's death Friday night, a European ambassador said that "everything hangs on Mahele. He is the central character now, the strongest, most respected and most responsible person in the leadership."
But the capital remained calm this morning and there were no reports of further violence.
Zaire's military high command planned to meet during the night amid speculation that it will declare the capital an open city. That would effectively surrender Kinshasa without a fight to rebel leader Laurent Kabila's army, now poised to enter the city from the east.
"When does a place fall?" the envoy asked. "When the Zairian army leaves, or when the first rebels come in, or when they occupy the place in force? Whatever it is, they are a half-hour's drive or two hours' walk out of Kinshasa."
The rebels appeared in no hurry to make the final push, however.
Several were seen Friday drinking beer in a roadside restaurant just outside the capital. Kabila may slow his advance now to give Mobutu's inner circle time to follow their leader's exit and reduce possible resistance in the city, analysts said.
There was no immediate response from Kabila, the enigmatic former Marxist bush fighter who emerged from obscurity last fall and declared to an unbelieving world that he intended to march 1,200 miles to Kinshasa and topple Mobutu.
He was in his stronghold in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi on Friday and was expected to make a public statement today.
But representatives of his Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire held a news conference in Lubumbashi and denounced what is left of the Mobutu regime.
Rebel "foreign minister" Bizima Karaha said Mobutu's cronies want a fight and will "be responsible for what might happen in the city."
There was no fanfare in the streets of Lubumbashi.
Rebel officials have said they may move the capital there from Kinshasa once they take power.
Mobutu's sudden departure left a power vacuum and considerable uncertainty about the future of a nation as large as the United States east of the Mississippi and with a history marked by ethnic bloodletting and secessionist revolts.
There were conflicting reports about who, if anyone, is running the government.
Kin-Kiey Mulumba, the government spokesman, told reporters after a Cabinet meeting that Mobutu had delegated his once-absolute power to Roman Catholic Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo before slipping out of the city.
Monsengwo was elected speaker of the Parliament last week, making him the constitutional successor to Mobutu, but he has refused to accept the job. Kabila, in any case, has rejected Monsengwo's role as a transitional leader, and the rebels do not recognize Zaire's constitution.
"The president has ceased to play any role in the affairs of the country," Kin-Kiey said.
But he insisted that Mobutu is still head of state because he has not formally resigned.