March 26, 1997 in Nation/World

Mediating Council Proposed In Zaire But Diplomats Say Mobutu’s Plan Doesn’t Go Far Enough And Won’t Achieve Truce

Los Angeles Times

Hoping to preserve some remnant of its fast-fading power, President Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime Tuesday proposed the creation of a seven-member council to seek negotiations and a cease-fire with rebels who have vowed to topple him.

The apparent concession came after heavy diplomatic lobbying by Washington and other governments anxious to prevent further widening of the five-month conflict. But diplomats warned that the proposed negotiating team did not have a clear mandate or authority, as they had hoped, and said a truce is unlikely any time soon.

The rebel alliance, led by Laurent Kabila, did not immediately respond to the announcement by a Mobutu spokesman on state-run television. But many here were disappointed that Africa’s longest-serving dictator did not resign or offer to compromise with the increasingly popular insurgents.

Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting will intensify at a two-day summit of African leaders starting Wednesday in Lome, capital of Togo. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will attend, and both Mobutu and Kabila have promised to send delegations.

“The Zairian government has insisted that a cease-fire take place before talks can begin, and Kabila has said that talks must proceed before there is a cease-fire,” Annan told a news conference in Luanda, capital of Angola. “I hope that in Lome we will find a basis for moving forward by perhaps having a cease-fire and talks begin simultaneously.”

The insurgents now hold about one-fourth of Zaire and are advancing without opposition through copper-rich Shaba province and toward the second largest city, Lubumbashi. Diplomats say the city is undefended and is likely to fall to the rebels without a battle, as Kisangani, the third largest city, did 10 days ago.

Kabila has insisted in the past that he was only prepared to negotiate the terms of Mobutu’s resignation before he would approve a truce. He has softened his demand for face-to-face meetings with Mobutu, however, since the 66-year-old ruler is suffering from prostate cancer.

Analysts said Mobutu’s move Tuesday could spur talks. But they said it appeared to be a calculated bid to buy time in hopes Kabila can be convinced to accept a cease-fire and share power with the current regime. Few diplomats consider that likely.

“Eventually, Kabila will start to roll again,” said one Western diplomat. “If you look at the massive political disarray here, their ability to put together a consensus (for negotiations) is improbable if not impossible.”

On Monday, Mobutu added to the country’s political uncertainty by backing a disputed vote in the Parliament and ousting his hand-picked prime minister, Leon Kengo wa Dondo. Mobutu asked Kengo to stay on as caretaker until he chooses another prime minister, setting off a furious power struggle among political leaders here.

A European ambassador said Mobutu, who has ruled Zaire since 1965, was engaging in “his old tricks” by pitting subordinates and rivals against each other and by sending out mixed signals about his intentions.

“He’s creating confusion,” he said. “And that’s the worst thing. We’re very concerned.”

Mobutu, he added, “is like Nero. He’s fiddling while the country burns.”

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