Talks between President Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila, the Zairian rebel leader, collapsed before they started Wednesday night, setting the stage for an armed takeover of the capital.
The talks, which were to be hosted by South African President Nelson Mandela, were canceled after a day of confusion over the whereabouts of Kabila and his objections to security arrangements for his meeting with Mobutu aboard a South African warship.
Speaking late Wednesday afternoon from Cabinda, Angola, Kabila said that he would not travel to the ship, the Outeniqua, until it was sailing in international waters. Waiting with Mobutu in the Congolese port city of Pointe-Noire, Mandela, reportedly incensed, told Kabila in a telephone conversation that he had reneged on his promises to attend and said that the Outeniqua would not set sail.
“This is a great disappointment,” said the U.N. mediator in the Zairian crisis, Mohammed Sahnoun, as he told reporters aboard the ship about the cancellation of the talks. “We are now working hard to avoid bloodshed in Kinshasa.”
Foreign diplomats and Zairian officials said that they expected the rebels to move immediately on the capital, a crowded city of 5 million.
“You see the kind of theater we are being subjected to,” said one Zairian officer who works in the prime minister’s office. Asked what he expected would happen next in Kinshasa, he replied simply: “War.”
Zairian officers, who command an army that has already been badly routed in battles from one end of the country to the other, strongly favor a negotiated solution to the crisis that would involve Mobutu’s immediate departure from power.
There have been increasingly persistent reports that if Mobutu, who is gravely ill with cancer, were to attempt to return home from the failed talks, as he has pledged to do, his airplane would be prevented from landing or even be shot down.
In an interview before the talks collapsed, one senior military commander said, “The government knows that Mobutu must leave now. There must be someone to tell him.”
The senior officer refused to comment on reports that government forces would attack Mobutu’s plane or prevent it from landing.
A Western diplomat here said that Mobutu would almost certainly spend the night in Pointe-Noire, but his intentions beyond that were unclear. The diplomat said, “The only way we’ll know what Mobutu will do tomorrow is when he tells his pilot to head north or to head south.”
While negotiators directed most of their anger at Kabila, who stayed away from the talks, there was deep frustration with Mobutu as well. South African officials said that the Zairian leader ignored a carefully written South African proposal intended as a starting point for the discussions, and surprised them with a proposal of his own in French.
“When you get these kind of differences over logistics as an excuse for not meeting, it is obviously a cover for something else,” said one Western diplomat. “The two sides were still so far apart, Kabila couldn’t see any reason to bother talking.”