The red carpet was out, the honor guard stood at attention. But cancer-stricken Mobutu Sese Seko was unwilling or unable to enjoy a presidential welcome on his return Friday from France.
Reporters were chased from the airport after a plane believed to be carrying Zaire’s president parked on the tarmac for half an hour.
Weakened by prostate cancer, the 66-year-old Mobutu had hoped his return would help end fighting and restore confidence in his divided government. Instead, his mysterious arrival only added to questions about his health and his ability to run the government.
After the officials who had formed a welcome party drifted away, a black limousine was summoned to the plane’s boarding steps. A convoy of limousines arrived later at the presidential mansion in the Camp Tshatshi military compound.
Mobutu “is a little bit tired - you know, traveling from France to Zaire,” his private secretary, Lando Kota-Mbongo, told The Associated Press. “That’s why he wanted to take a rest and consult his entourage.”
Lando said Mobutu would speak to reporters today or Sunday.
Until Friday morning, when Mobutu boarded a plane in southern France, he had not been seen in public anywhere since entering a Monaco hospital nearly a week ago, reportedly with internal bleeding linked to previous cancer surgery.
Photographers were kept far away but could just make out Mobutu’s trademark leopard-skin hat through telephoto lenses.
Only a few dozen family members and dignitaries had gathered in Kinshasa to greet Mobutu, compared to the thousands of supporters, singers and drummers on hand for his last visit in February.
In contrast, rebel leader Laurent Kabila received a jubilant welcome Friday in the eastern town of Kisangani, which his forces took last weekend.
A dancing crowd of 10,000 welcomed Kabila, waving palm fronds, symbols of peace, and chanting “We are free! We are free!”
The rebels have said they will stop fighting only after Mobutu holds direct talks with Kabila. Mobutu has so far refused.
“We negotiate first, first we negotiate,” Kabila reiterated.
Mobutu’s 31-year dictatorship has made him one of the world’s richest men while his country became one of the world’s poorest. His past promises of a transition to multiparty democracy have gone unfulfilled.
In the months Mobutu has been at luxury hospitals and his villas in Europe, Kabila has captured much of eastern Zaire. This week, most of the parliament voted to oust Mobutu’s hand-picked prime minister, whom lawmakers accuse of mishandling the war. The Mobutu regime rejected the vote as unconstitutional.
On the streets of the capital Friday, Samuel Lukta, an unemployed accountant, had little use for his president.
“No, no, no! Look at these five children here,” he said, pointing to five young men selling used books on the sidewalk. “They’re humiliated and treated like a bunch of animals. Whose fault is that but Mobutu’s? We should wash our hands of him.”
Supporters of Etienne Tshisekedi, a popular opposition leader and longtime Mobutu foe, say he should take over as prime minister and begin talks with the rebels.
Tshisekedi was elected prime minister by parliament in 1992, but Mobutu refused to confirm him. Two years later, lawmakers settled on Leon Kengo wa Dondo, the president’s choice.
Tshisekedi has pledged to negotiate with Kabila, form a coalition government and prepare the country for its first multiparty elections.
Rebel spokesman Ngemwe Kazadi said Kabila would talk with whoever is in charge in Kinshasa but “we don’t know who’s running the country now.”
The rebels are now moving toward Lubumbashi, the country’s second largest city formerly known as Elisabethville, and Mbuji-Mayi, Zaire’s diamond capital, Kazadi said.