Rebel leader Laurent Kabila finally boarded a South African naval ship late Saturday to await talks Sunday with President Mobutu Sese Seko, as indications grew that the Zairian head of state’s crumbling military fortunes soon could force his resignation.
Mobutu is scheduled to face Kabila on the ship for their first face-to-face meeting, to be hosted by South African President Nelson Mandela, and South African officials voiced optimism that the talks finally will take place.
The meeting, originally to have been held Friday, was postponed when Kabila failed to arrive that day and then delayed his arrival Saturday until after 10 p.m., citing concerns for his safety on board the ship.
U.S. officials described the situation going into the talks as very fluid.
“From a mediation standpoint, it could still go either way,” one official said. “Getting them to talk is actually the easy part. Getting them to agree is going to be much tougher.”
Although Kabila’s arrival on board the Outeniqua was considered a positive sign, diplomats expressed fear that the rebel leader had been deliberately stalling the talks in order to press his military advantage.
And senior White House aides in Washington late Saturday said Mobutu still had not agreed to Kabila’s only demand - that the president resign immediately, ending his 32 years of dictatorial rule. The U.S. officials said Mobutu, in a letter to President Clinton, pledged to act to preserve Zaire but stopped short of agreeing to resign, a step the Clinton administration had hoped he would take.
Not waiting for negotiations, Kabila’s rebel troops seized the town of Kenge on Saturday and raced west to within 90 miles of Kinshasa, the capital.
The letter to Clinton was handed to U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and its contents were communicated to Washington this weekend. It was described by the White House officials as “forward leaning” but not sufficiently clear to resolve the crisis.
South African officials conceded Saturday that some of the security concerns cited by Kabila may have been valid.
“We let people on board yesterday who obviously weren’t journalists but were posing as journalists,” said Pieter Swanepoel, a spokesman for the South African Foreign Affairs Ministry. “Because they were accompanying President Mobutu, we let them on board.”
The U.S. State Department on Saturday again urged U.S. citizens to leave Zaire, warning of a “deteriorating security and political situation” and the “potential for unrest throughout the country.”