Last chance for a deal in Zaire Pretoria talks: Mobutu dreams of keeping power while country delivers itself to rebels.


LONG-DELAYED negotiations between Zaire's apparently invincible rebels and its supposed government were to begin in Pretoria, the South African capital, today. The representatives of rebel leader Laurent Kabila were there yesterday and ready to talk of an orderly transition of power. It wasn't clear whether representatives of the government were showing up.

It doesn't matter. Yesterday, Mr. Kabila's troops took the diamond center of Mbuji Mayi and were closing in on the copper capital and second city, Lubumbashi. In Mbuji Mayi as elsewhere, the triumphant rebels were disciplined while the fleeing troops looted.

The country is delivering itself into Mr. Kabila's hands, despite his 1960s revolutionary baggage and befuddlement about his real intentions. Anything, people in all walks of life are saying, must be better than the three decades of rule by President Mobutu Sese Seku. The only imperative for a deal in Pretoria would be a stiffening of resistance as rebel forces move into the western half of the country. Without that, Mr. Kabila has no need to compromise or share.

Back in the capital, Kinshasa, discredited politicians were fighting over the rearrangement of the deck chairs. President Mobutu appointed his enemy, Etienne Tshisekedi, to be prime minister. Mr. Tshisekedi sacked the cabinet, suspended the constitution and made places for Mr. Kabila's party in a new cabinet. The ousted ministers said this had not happened but that Mr. Tshisekedi had suspended himself. Mr. Mobutu would not concern himself with such trivia but said he would run to succeed himself in an election.

From rebel headquarters in Goma, Mr. Kabila showed no interest in any of this. He says no deal is possible while Mr. Mobutu remains in authority. Mr. Tshisekedi has yet to demonstrate the mass of support that would compel Mr. Kabila to deal with him, though his bona fides as an oppositionist are not in doubt.

While the U.S. joined France in preparing to rescue nationals if necessary, there was no sign of major powers trying to save Mr. Mobutu or to divide the country. Mr. Kabila's advance is slowed by the hugeness of the country and its lack of roads. If the French troops across the River Congo in Brazzaville would escort Mr. Mobutu back to the French Riviera as soon as possible, this final act could be completed sooner with less tragedy.

! Pub Date: 4/05/97

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