Ragtag rebel forces marched into Zaire’s capital on Saturday to the cheers of eager crowds, and a beaming Laurent Kabila proclaimed victory in his war to end the three-decade dictatorship of President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Government loyalists fled the country and Zairian soldiers put up little resistance to the final assault of rebel forces, which swept across Africa’s third-largest country in just eight months. Gunfire crackled in the capital as government troops abandoned the city, looting as they went.
Civilians ran jubilantly through the streets, waving palm fronds and flashing victory signs. “Mobutu has gone crazy! We want Kabila!” they cried.
Kabila, speaking at rebel headquarters in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi, declared himself president.
“I am happy, very happy to succeed,” he said with a broad smile.
The 56-year-old rebel leader pledged to form a transitional government by Tuesday and issue a new constitution within 60 days. But he made no mention of elections the United States has pressed him to organize.
The rebels also said they will change the country’s name to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mobutu’s exact whereabouts and plans were unclear. He abandoned Kinshasa on Friday, passing control of the country to his Cabinet. Aides said the cancer-stricken 66-year-old leader had flown to his northern hometown of Gbadolite, 700 miles away, for a few days’ “rest.”
Kabila said he had no plans for Mobutu: “He can stay in his village, but I think it is not very important at all.”
Kabila said Zairian army generals in Kinshasa had told him they were ready to receive orders from him.
Ten thousand rebel soldiers were heading into Kinshasa, he said. Western military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rebels controlled the international airport and a cargo airport.
By midday, rebel fighters held the Voice of Zaire radio station in central Kinshasa. Hundreds of residents celebrated outside, wearing white headbands to show support for the rebels.
In their first radio broadcast late Saturday - which had to wait until an engineer could be found to run the equipment - the rebels told government troops to hand in their weapons by Sunday morning, and warned that looters would be punished.
The rebels also were in control of the Parliament building, Kinshasa’s sports stadium and the information ministry. The bodies of four soldiers who had resisted the rebels lay on the stadium’s grounds.
Most of the city appeared to be in rebel hands, but witnesses near Camp Tshatshi, the capital’s main military camp and the site of Mobutu’s fortress overlooking the Zaire river, said fighting continued there into the night.
The threat of violence by fleeing government soldiers kept residents indoors in parts of Kinshasa. Elsewhere, crowds lined roads and leaned over balconies as rebels passed, chanting “We’re free!” Some rushed to bring water to marching fighters.
“Oh, Kabila! Oh, Kabila!” 18-year-old Miguel Kamputu shouted as he rolled on a filthy sidewalk then shook with laughter. “Too much suffering. Too much suffering. He is finally here.”
“This is a very good day for us - a very good day,” cried Honore Lubuku, happily jogging down the street. “For 32 years we saw Mobutu steal our money, eat our food, ruin our lives. Now it’s his turn to suffer.”
At the Grand Market, about 300 young people faced down government troops who tried to block their way. The troops opened fire and then dispersed. Two people who appeared to be civilians were killed.
Western military sources also said a Zairian soldier shot and killed Gen. Marc Mahele Lieko Bokungu, declaring him a traitor to Mobutu: The general had advised Mobutu on Thursday that soldiers would not defend the capital and urged him to leave.
Mobutu’s handpicked prime minister, Gen. Likulia Bolongo, had vowed in a radio broadcast Saturday to remain “until the end,” urging government troops to stay in their camps.
But within an hour, the end had arrived: The general slipped across the Zaire River to Brazzaville, Congo, a Western diplomat said.
Mobutu’s son, Mobutu Kongulu - also a senior army officer - fled to Brazzaville with his family and 30 armed bodyguards. Officials of the Congo government, which is close to the Mobutu regime, greeted them warmly - then disarmed them to the cheers of onlookers.
Mobutu himself was expected to head to Morocco and eventually to exile in France.
Port officials and reporters in Brazzaville said many other Mobutu generals and political cronies had arrived. Mobutu associates could be seen leaving Kinshasa in speedboats.
An American evacuation team was on alert in Brazzaville - as it had been for a week - but had not received orders to evacuate the 300 or so Americans in Kinshasa, Navy Cmdr. Bob Anderson said.
Kabila appealed for calm in the capital, and warned that anyone who harmed Zairians or foreigners would be “severely sanctioned.” Kabila’s soldiers have been accused of atrocities against refugees.
While the rebel leader has promised to undo the damage wrought by Mobutu’s nearly 32 years in power, he has been short on specifics. His backing from Rwanda and Uganda could make him suspect among some strongly nationalistic Zairians.
France, which helped prop up Mobutu for years, expressed displeasure that he and Kabila had not reached a negotiated settlement, and called for elections.
“We will be very attentive to the actions of the new authorities,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.