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Kabila's Troops Avert Clash With Zairian Demonstrators

May 29, 1997|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KINSHASA, Zaire — Soldiers of Zaire's new government averted a serious showdown Wednesday with members of the country's political opposition.

Protesters gathered in groups at several locations in Kinshasa, the capital, preparing to join forces at a central venue and then stage a march that would bring the streets of the city to a standstill.

But each time the marchers set off on their route and their numbers began to swell, they were dispersed by troops firing guns into the air. Some protesters were reportedly beaten, and about 30 marchers were detained. It was unclear whether they were later released.

Officials of the new regime of self-appointed President Laurent Kabila, who was expected to be sworn in today as head of state, claimed a victory in avoiding a major confrontation.

Opponents--who are angry that the main opposition politician was left out of Kabila's Cabinet--promised another rally later this week.

"We are supposedly a free country," shouted protester Francis Kadima, 25, as he stood at the city's bus depot staring down a dozen gun-toting soldiers who were holding a few of his friends. "Is this what this government calls democracy?"

Kabila's rebel alliance toppled the dictatorship of former Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko earlier this month and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo. The new government has banned public demonstrations and prohibited multiple political parties for at least two years.

Most of Wednesday's protesters claim allegiance to veteran politician and Mobutu foe Etienne Tshisekedi, a former prime minister whom they want to see in a significant post in Kabila's administration.

The marchers gathered slowly at the capital's train station. Some milled around the central post office. Others headed downtown to Victory Square and the bus depot.

They were disbanded before their total numbers could increase to more than a couple of thousand. The crowds shouted insults at the soldiers, accusing them of being Rwandan spies planning a takeover of Zaire.

At the local Higher Institute of Commerce, frustrated students were barred from leaving the campus to join the protests. They sat in huddles on the courtyard lawn, waving their fists and lambasting the ragtag group of primarily teenage soldiers sent to guard them.

Across town at the Institute of Applied Technology, students burned tires and stood atop the college steps and on the roof chanting traditional slogans and singing the national anthem.

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