Moving to mount a final stand against rebels rapidly closing in on this capital, the head of Mobutu Sese Seko’s Presidential Guard Saturday urged his troops to “fight to the death” to defend the city.
In a long speech broadcast on national radio here, Gen. N’Zimbi Ngbale said reinforcements were being sent to defend the city of Kikwit, 240 miles east of Kinshasa. Rebels of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo have said Kikwit will fall to their troops within 48 hours.
Diplomats here give little chance for Mobutu’s forces to stop the rebel advance at Kikwit, and say they expect the capital itself to come under military pressure from the rebels as early as next week.
Kikwit is the last sizable city between the rebel-held eastern two-thirds of the country and Kinshasa, a city of 5 million people on Zaire’s western border.
“Our mission is to protect the head of state, his family, the population and the whole nation,” N’Zimbi told the Presidential Guard. “You want to sell the country away? You have to defend the country and fight to your death.”
In a six-month-old campaign that began in the far eastern region bordering Rwanda and Burundi, Zaire’s rebel alliance, led by Laurent Kabila, has dealt nothing but defeat to Mobutu’s armies, which have typically pillaged and then abandoned cities at the rebels’ approach.
What could make a battle for Kinshasa different is the fact that Mobutu’s Presidential Guard is composed almost exclusively of soldiers recruited from northern ethnic groups that see their fate as tied to Mobutu, himself a northerner.
With their backs against the wall, those troops could offer more resistance than has been seen in past battles, diplomats and military analysts here say, or they could loot and pillage Kinshasa, leaving it burning before stripping off their uniforms hoping to melt into the population.
For his part, Kabila predicted Friday that the battle for Kinshasa would come “sooner than expected and will be very, very swift.”
Foreign diplomats and many Zairians fear that any military campaign to capture Kinshasa would be disastrous. During previous bouts of instability here in 1991 and 1993, soldiers pillaged Kinshasa, taking hundreds of lives and devastating businesses with effects that can still be seen.
While N’Zimbi was pledging a last stand in Kinshasa, church leaders from several denominations came together Saturday to appeal for peace, calling for an immediate cease-fire in the war. They said they had recently met with Mobutu, who is gravely ill with prostate cancer, and would now seek a meeting to press their appeal with Kabila.
In Washington, the White House said Saturday that Bill Richardson, the U.S. delegate to the United Nations, would go to Zaire soon to try to arrange peace talks between Mobutu and Kabila, even though such efforts have failed in the past.
Saturday, Kabila flew to the rebel-held northeastern city of Kisangani to meet with international relief agencies and oversee an investigation into the treatment of 100,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees whose camps came under attack this week, sending them fleeing into the forest.
Kabila’s forces have been accused by aid groups of mounting or inciting those attacks, in what a World Food Program official called a “final solution” approach to the Hutu stranded in Zaire.
Kabila’s forces have been supported by the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda, which overthrew a Hutu-led government after a 1994 campaign of genocide against the minority Tutsi.