Without explanation, President Mobutu Sese Seko failed to show up Thursday for a flight to talks with the rebel leader who has seized half his country. Mediators and Zairian officials insisted the meeting is still on, but it might be delayed.
It was not the first time Mobutu has hedged on attending talks, which mediators hope will lead to his peaceful resignation. For the past week, he has committed to meet Laurent Kabila and then reneged.
With talks set for today, Mobutu’s no-show at the Kinshasa airport left the status of negotiations unclear - as are many things in Zaire these days.
Zairian Cabinet ministers and other officials waited for Mobutu at the airport Thursday, ready to depart for the talks to be held on a South African naval ship departing from Gabon. Sources close to Mobutu said the situation was “confused” and that the meeting may be postponed until Saturday.
As diplomats scurried to keep the meeting on track, aid workers in northeastern Zaire flew more than 1,500 Rwandan refugees home Thursday and reports emerged that troops and tanks from Angola were helping the rebels in their march toward Kinshasa, the capital.
South African officials insisted Mobutu would meet Kabila on Friday, while a rebel spokesman said nothing would happen until Sunday. “The end of the war will be on Sunday when Mobutu decides to leave,” spokesman Bizima Karaha told reporters in the southern, rebelheld city of Lubumbashi.
Mobutu, 66, has insisted he would never bow to Kabila’s demand to resign, but he is ill with prostate cancer and under intense international pressure to step down.
The United States and other countries want a cease-fire in Zaire’s ivil war, the establishment of a transitional government that includes rebels and opposition parties, and a plan for free, fair elections.
Not convinced that a peaceful transfer of power is possible, Britain on Thursday urged its citizens in Zaire to leave.
An American diamond miner in Lubumbashi, meanwhile, said troops from Angola as well as Angolan tanks and heavy equipment were involved in the rebel push toward the capital.
The United States has warned Angola not to get involved in the conflict in Zaire. Bill Richardson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was in the Angolan capital of Luanda to discuss the issue Thursday.
A U.S. official in Washington confirmed the miner’s report, and said Angola is also massing troops in its Cabinda region, which is within striking distance of Kinshasa.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Angolan troops could enter war if Mobutu’s forces resisted a rebel attempt to take the capital by force.
The American miner, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, has been helping the rebels by flying reconnaissance missions over the Kwango River east of Kinshasa. He said he saw thousands of troops enter from Angola last week to help rebels capture Tshikapa with tanks, heavy artillery and anti-aircraft weapons.
Tshikapa is 160 miles southeast of Kikwit, a city seized Tuesday by the rebels.