Kabila believed dead in Congo

Borders sealed, curfew imposed in tense capital

African country is at war

January 17, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - A flurry of reports from Congo yesterday said that President Laurent Kabila, who deposed one of Africa's great dictators but then brought his country into even worse disarray, had been shot and killed.

The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo was shot by one of his bodyguards, according to John E. Aycoth, a lobbyist and public relations consultant in Washington who acts as Kabila's spokesman in the United States. He said he had talked to top Congolese officials, who told him that the president was dead.

The killing was also reported by Louis Michel, foreign minister of Belgium, Congo's former colonial ruler, who said he was told of Kabila's death by "two trustworthy sources."

The circumstances of the shooting were not immediately known, but one report said that it had involved a dispute between Kabila and some of his generals.

The Congolese government gave no details of the incident, but announced that it had sealed the country's borders, closed the airport and imposed a nighttime curfew. A televised address by Kabila's personal chief of staff, Col. Edy Kapend, suggested the seriousness of the events. Soldiers surrounded the presidential palace, according to reports from Kinshasa, but the capital itself appeared calm. There was no indication who was in charge.

Ordering senior commanders to bring their units under control, Kapend said: "No shots may be fired, for whatever reason, without prior order. The population must not be thrown into panic and the troops must not grow agitated."

The government's minister of interior, Gaetan Kakudji, one of Kabila's closest allies, went on state television to say that the president himself had ordered the curfew, suggesting that he was still alive.

But in Washington, a senior administration official said the United States received several reports from credible sources that Kabila had been assassinated. "Our operating assumption is that he is dead," the official said.

If the assumption is confirmed, Kabila's death would dramatically alter the dynamics of a 2 1/2 -year-old war that has drawn in half a dozen African nations and destabilized all of Central Africa. Kabila, who deposed longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, had long been considered the main obstacle to any diplomatic resolution to the current conflict, and had become increasingly isolated diplomatically during his four years in office.

It was not clear last night who might have led the shooting of Kabila, though his standing in the military had fallen recently. After months of a military stalemate, during which the warring parties had seemed satisfied with carving up Congo and feasting on its natural resources, Kabila's forces suffered a serious defeat late last year in the southeast, in the mineral-rich province of Katanga.

Shots were heard yesterday afternoon near the presidential palace, where fighting also appeared to have occurred, according to the United Nations in New York, citing Kamel Morjane, the U.N.'s special envoy to Congo who is in Kinshasa.

Among residents of the capital, Kabila had steadily lost popularity since toppling Mobutu four years ago. He had assumed the practice of traveling only at night, because pedestrians in daytime would lift their shirts to reveal their bellies at his passing motorcade - as a sign that they were hungry.

And yet Kabila had made no effort to end the crippling war, which has displaced up to 2 million people inside the country and pushed out a quarter of a million more into neighboring countries. In fact, he appeared to do whatever he could to disrupt any possible diplomatic progress.

After a peace accord was signed 18 months ago, Kabila ignored its contents. At every turn, he blocked the United Nations from even beginning the process of deploying troops in Congo. The United Nations, which currently has about 500 civilian and military officials in the Congo, has been authorized to deploy 5,000 peacekeepers. But it has not done so mainly because of Kabila.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said Kabila's death, if confirmed, would create "a significant change in the landscape." The United States will soon warn Congo's neighbors not to try to profit from the death of Kabila, she said.

"We would urge all belligerents not to try to take advantage of this to further their own interests," Rice said in an interview. She pressed rebels and their foreign allies to "work collectively to be a part of the solution that advances democracy and stability in Congo and in the region."

It was with great optimism that Kabila came to power in 1997. Even Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright praised him during a visit to Kinshasa in December 1997.

Two of America's closest African allies, Rwanda and Uganda, chose Kabila, an obscure rebel and criminal, to head a rebellion against Mobutu.

But soon after Kabila came to power, he turned against his former patrons, who were greatly resented in Congo. Almost as quickly, the Rwandans and Ugandans backed another rebellion, this time to oust Kabila, in August 1998. The conflict soon drew in Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia on Kabila's side, each of those countries plunging into the war in the Congo for its own reasons.

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