President Mobutu Sese Seko appeared in public Sunday for the first time in at least six days, showing that, despite being ill with cancer, he still is capable of an effort to save his crumbling regime.
Mobutu walked a few steps onto a portico of his residence with the visiting South African deputy president, Thabo Mbeki. He was steady but thin, lacking the vigorous presence that for years helped him dominate Zairian politics. He appeared relaxed, wearing his customary closed-neck tunic and leopard-skin hat and carrying a black cane.
In a voice that before his illness would have boomed more sonorously, he said: “I am called Mobutu. I am not here to pursue the fortunes … or the interests of Mobutu, as you write from time to time. I have come in the higher interests of Zaire - that is, unity and territorial integrity.”
Asked how he felt Sunday, he said only, “I am as you see me.”
Mobutu said he would announce a plan to address Zaire’s crisis “within the coming 48 hours.” Zairian officials have said government ministers are pressing Mobutu to negotiate with the rebels, a step he has only hinted at considering, and western governments reportedly are pushing him to resign.
Meanwhile, the first wave of U.S. soldiers arrived in Brazzaville, Congo, on Sunday to prepare for the possible evacuation of Americans from Zaire. About 500 American civilians live in Zaire.
The commander of the task force, Maj. Gen. Edwin P. Smith, said he expects to have about 200 U.S. soldiers in Brazzaville within the next couple of days and about 100 more in Libreville, the capital of neighboring Gabon.
Mobutu’s illness is a key element in Zaire’s civil war and political chaos. He spent most of the past eight months in Europe being treated for cancer, while rebels backed by several of Zaire’s neighbors seized nearly a quarter of the country.
Mobutu’s only sure pillar of support is a web of military units and secret police agencies in Kinshasa, and many people fear a violent rampage by those groups if Mobutu dies or is challenged in the capital.
Mobutu and rebel leader Laurent Kabila show no signs of being close to talks. Mobutu has offered a vague proposal for a “national council,” including various political groups and the army, to seek a negotiated solution, but has not said what role he would offer the rebels.
Kabila says he wants a direct meeting with Mobutu to discuss arrangements for the president to give up power.
Mobutu met Mbeki for about 20 minutes Sunday, receiving a letter from South African President Nelson Mandela, who has mediated in the stalled international efforts to get Mobutu and the rebels to negotiate.