Key leaders absent as Mandela tries to broker a Congo peace Civil conflict threatens to become regional war

August 23, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa -- With outside military intervention increasing in the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war, President Nelson Mandela launched last-ditch peace negotiations here yesterday.

But the absence of two key players -- Congo President Laurent Kabila and his ally President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe -- undermined the chances of heading off a military showdown.

As the rebels, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, claimed to be within 18 miles of the capital, Kinshasa, Angolan troops reportedly crossed the border to aid Kabila by threatening the rebels' western flank.

Rebel spokesman Bizima Karah, in Goma, seat of the anti-Kabila rebellion, called for resistance to the Angolan "aggression," and said it made chances of a settlement "almost impossible."

Already Zimbabwean troops have deployed around Kinshasa's airport to support Kabila. Now four outside nations are on rival sides, two each, in a conflict that threatens to escalate rapidly into full-scale regional war.

In an effort to head off conflagration, Mandela held talks yesterday with the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda and the ministers of justice and transport from Kabila's Congo. No rebels were present, but it was assumed that Rwanda and Uganda spoke for them.

The advance of the rebels, who already control 40 per cent of the country, toward Kinshasa made the Pretoria talks perhaps the PTC last chance of averting the breakup of the Congo and the spread of fighting into neighboring nations.

A similar South African peace initiative failed last year, when Kabila was the rebel leader marching on Kinshasa to topple dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and diplomats here cautioned that there is no guarantee that the new move will be any more successful.

The desperate effort to avert war is an all-African initiative, without the involvement of the United States, which earlier this year announced a more active African policy, or France, the European country with the most influence in the former Zaire.

Meeting with Mandela yesterday were President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo ministers, Mwenze Kongolo of justice and Henri Mova of transport.

Before the meeting, Museveni underlined the dangers of wider conflagration, saying: "If unilateral intervention intensifies [in the Congo], Uganda may be forced, after due internal consultations, to take its own independent actions in protection of its own security interests."

Mandela's spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, said the talks were aimed at establishing a cease-fire as a first step toward creating a government of national unity to resolve the conflict in the Congo peacefully.

He declined to say whether removal of all foreign troops was a prerequisite to a cease-fire, but Kabila has previously refused to attend peace talks until Ugandan and Rwandan troops have been withdrawn from the Congo.

Representatives of all 14 member-states of the Southern African Development Community have been invited to assemble here today to consider putting their imprimatur on whatever agreement Mandela can negotiate, but it was not known last night how many would attend.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whose troops are reportedly threatening the rebels' western flank, has made his excuses and will not be here.

The other absentee, Mugabe, has been at odds with Mandela over how to approach the Congo crisis, with Mandela favoring diplomacy and Mugabe favoring force, within a larger contest between the two for influence in the region.

Mugabe has claimed that Zambia, Tanzania and Namibia are ready to support Kabila, but there have been no reports of their troops moving into the Congo.

Both he and Mandela are committed to supporting Kabila as the "recognized" head of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a member of the Southern African Development Community.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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