KINSHASA, Zaire -- His step was slow, his body appeared frail and his voice often faltered. But Mobutu Sese Seko, Africa's longest-serving ruler and, some say, one of its most venal tyrants, clearly basked in the glow of a triumphant return home yesterday after four months in Europe for cancer treatment.
At the airport, he raised his silver-topped cane above his leopard-skin hat and slowly twirled in a circle atop a red-carpeted podium to acknowledge the blaring brass band, marching honor guards, grinning officials, thousands of supporters and scores of reporters who had flocked to see him.
Huge crowds, including many people wearing shirts and dresses emblazoned with his portrait, cheered, waved flags and sang as his stretch Cadillac limousine, accompanied by trucks of heavily armed commandos and mounted anti-aircraft guns, bounced along potholed roads for 20 miles from the airport to his palace inside a military base overlooking a bend in the Congo River.
Once there, the strongman who, his opponents say, has beggared and brutalized Zaire for 31 years pledged that he was again ready to solve the country's myriad problems.
"The enemies of our country have chosen when I was sick to put a sword in my back," Mobutu, 66, said in a nationally broadcast speech interrupted by applause, singing and the loud cawing of nearby peacocks. "I'm not going to disappoint you. I know your expectations and your hopes. I will act rapidly and positively."
Mobutu, who said he had returned against his doctors' advice, didn't explain what he would do to repel the rebels who have emptied giant camps of Rwandan refugees and seized hundreds of miles of territory in eastern Zaire since launching a surprise military offensive in October.
Backed by Rwanda and led by Mobutu's long-time nemesis, Laurent Kabila, the Tutsi-dominated regulars now control about 6 million people, or almost 15 percent of Zaire's population.
But fighting has ebbed and the revolt appears to have stalled.
Diplomats and analysts expect Mobutu to reshuffle the Cabinet and change commanders of his corrupt, incompetent army, which has mostly fled without fighting and launched a brutal spree of pillage and terror against civilians.
Few expect the crippled giant that Zaire has become to easily recapture its lost towns and territory -- a small but strategic part of a fractious colonial creation that includes more than 200 ethnic groups across a region the size of Western Europe.
In Nairobi, Kenya, African leaders holding a summit on the eastern Zaire crisis urged peace talks to end the conflict. But Zaire's boycott of the meeting and Mobutu's harsh words underscored his government's opposition to negotiating with the rebels.
There was no word on how long Mobutu would stay in Kinshasa, a slum-like city he visits only in times of calamity and usually for only a few hours. The last visit was in January after a plane crashed into a Kinshasa market, killing more than 250 people.
Pub Date: 12/18/96