Zaire rebels and government open negotiations in Pretoria Mobutu regime's future in the balance as two sides begin face-to-face talks

April 06, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa -- With a hesitant handshake and words of peace, negotiators from the two warring sides in Zaire opened their first face-to-face negotiations here yesterday.

Mediators hope the two sides will agree to a cease-fire and set a formula for the future governance of the chaotic Central African republic, steps that could involve direct talks between Zaire's ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko and rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila.

Kabila's rebel forces have seized control of a quarter of the country in six months and are now heading toward Lubumbashi, Zaire's second-largest city. They were reported yesterday to have entered the diamond region's capital of Mbuji-Mayi, striking another blow against the 31-year-old rule of Mobutu.

Refugees endangered

The troop movements have isolated hundreds of thousands of refugees, who now face death by starvation and disease unless aid reaches them quickly. On the eve of the peace talks, the United Nations Security Council and the European Union appealed to the belligerents to allow aid workers to reach the refugees.

Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, special envoy of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity, said a temporary cease-fire had been arranged around Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city, which fell to the rebels last month. International aid workers were being allowed to distribute food and medicine in the area, he said.

The Zairian rebels were reported to have agreed to allow the United Nations to airlift 80,000 malnourished Rwandan refugees back to their homeland. The decision broke an impasse between aid organizations and rebel officials over how to return the Hutu refugees, who had fled almost 300 miles on foot through jungles.

'No illusions'

Sahnoun was cautious about the prospects of the talks, which he is to help oversee. "We should have no illusions as to the ability of such meetings to produce spectacular results," he said at the opening session. "But I am sure we will strive hard in order to prepare the ground for a durable peace and the process of democratization."

The venue for the talks is Pretoria's Union Building, the hilltop seat of government and the site of the breakthrough negotiations to end the bloody struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Zairian Foreign Minister Gerard Kamanda wa Kamanda said the government side regarded the talks with "an open state of mind, to look for peace and to also safeguard the unity, dignity, integrity and sovereignty of our country."

Noting that the rebels had been seeking face-to-face negotiations for five months, Bizima Karaha, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, said: "I am really happy our brothers are here -- that they, with us, will find a solution, and we will work together for our country."

He said the central issues are democracy, freedom and a better life for the people of Zaire. "They should take this opportunity and make sure we find solutions to our problems," said Karaha, looking at Mobutu's representatives. "Nobody will negotiate for them, like some people tried to do. Only they and us can come to a solution."

Conciliatory gesture

Kamanda and Karaha shook hands, a gesture that might portend the approaching end to a conflict that has ravaged a nation and threatened the stability of a continent.

Rebel leader Kabila has previously insisted that Mobutu's departure from power was necessary to end the fighting. With his health fading, his army in flight and his government in disarray, Mobutu's days -- politically and personally -- appear to be numbered. The talks in Pretoria may help decide whether he will leave office as a result of negotiations or by being overthrown.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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