African leaders urge a cease-fire in Congo Fifteen-nation summit in S. Africa recognizes Kabila's government

August 24, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Leaders of 15 African states yesterday called for an immediate cease-fire in the civil war in Congo to head off the threat of full-scale regional conflict.

Congolese President Laurent Kabila's Angolan allies captured a key rebel stronghold in western Congo yesterday. The rebels acknowledged losing the town of Kitona, but said they were continuing their advance on Kinshasa, the capital, and had captured the eastern city of Kisangani.

At their summit in South Africa's capital, the African leaders called for a standstill of troops and recognized the government of Kabila, who toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

The unanimous agreement was signed by Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda, who both support the rebels trying to oust Kabila.

The rebels' leaders did not attend the meeting, but the South Africans were confident that the rebels' interests were represented by Museveni and Bizimungu.

South African President Nelson Mandela, who was the host of the summit as chairman of the Southern African Development Community, said: "We mustn't imagine that the rebels are unreachable and are averse to the type of decisions that were taken here."

The rebels, he said, had repeatedly called for a cease-fire and negotiations.

The summit was boycotted by Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, both of whom have committed troops to Kabila's side. Mugabe was represented by his high commissioner, who endorsed the agreement. No Angolans were present, and dos Santos' reaction to the summit outcome was not known.

Kabila also missed the summit, citing medical reasons, but approved the agreement before it was published. He was represented at the meeting by Justice Minister Mwenze Kongolo.

"I am confident I will be able to reach peace," said Mandela, who was asked to work with the secretary general of the Organization of African Unity to bring about the cease-fire and troop standstill.

"It is going to be a process of talking to all the parties involved, but because there is unanimity, I have no concern whatsoever that we will reach agreement."

No deadlines were set, Mandela said, noting: "We took into account the difficulties and realities on the ground."

The summit was held as the rebels, who control about 40 percent of the country, advanced to within striking distance of Kinshasa, and as Zimbabwe and Angola moved to the defense of Kabila, whose 15-month rule has provoked accusations of incompetence, corruption, nepotism, violation of human rights and a lack of democracy.

But the leaders, in their communique, noted: "The [Democratic Republic of the Congo] has a government in place which the summit recognizes and which is headed by President Kabila."

President Daniel T. arap Moi of Kenya, who left the crisis of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to attend the summit, said: "We don't believe in the removal of any government by force."

Moi, who has ruled Kenya for 20 years, was an ally of Mobutu, and has kept his distance from Kabila, objecting to his seizure of power through force. But Moi and the others agreed that making Congo "an independent, sovereign, united, democratic, peaceful, stable and prosperous country" was critical to progress throughout the African continent.

The summit welcomed Kabila's commitment to democratic elections and said they should be held "within a reasonable period of time."

The leaders agreed to foster political dialogue within Congo and threw the group's weight behind the representation of "all Congolese people" in election preparations.

In Congo, Angolan forces, with air support and tanks, drove into Kitona, near the Atlantic coastline, effectively cutting off the advancing rebel army from its rear support.

A ministry-level official in Kinshasa said on condition of anonymity that Angola had landed a number of warplanes at Kinshasa's international airport.

Zimbabwean soldiers who arrived earlier were helping to shore up Kinshasa's southern defenses.

Rwanda and Uganda -- believed to be arming and supporting the rebels -- have repeatedly warned Zimbabwe and Angola not to get involved. Rwanda and Uganda have said they would respond with direct retaliatory intervention if the Angolans and Zimbabweans did not withdraw.

The summit communique said that, to lessen the threat of regional conflict, the countries directly involved -- Rwanda and Uganda on the rebel side, Zimbabwe and Angola supporting Kabila -- "undertook to desist from any hostile propaganda against one another and any other activities which might result in increasing tensions among themselves and elsewhere."

Angola was the only regional country not represented at the summit.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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