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Mobutu agrees to appoint team to negotiate with rebels

March 25, 1997

KINSHASA, Zaire (AP) _ Opening the way for talks with rebels who control one-third of Zaire, President Mobutu Sese Seko suggested Tuesday that Parliament create a seven-member negotiating team to hold talks with them.

The rebels had long insisted they would only negotiate directly with Mobutu, but have softened their stance in recent days. A government source in South Africa, which has played a key role in trying to mediate an end to Zaire’s insurgency, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that rebel leader Laurent Kabila has agreed to meet with a government delegation _ but only once and in a foreign country.

Mobutu, too, has said for some time that he wants negotiations with the rebels. The stumbling block has been whether negotiations would take place before or after a cease-fire.

That issue was not raised in Tuesday’s announcement on national television by presidential spokesman Kabuya Lumuna Sando.

``One is looking for a way to put an end to the hostilities and open negotiations,″ Kabuya said. He also said Mobutu would create a national council to advise the government on Zaire’s transition to democracy. He gave no details on either proposal.

The announcements _ the first on Mobutu’s behalf since he accepted the resignation of his embattled prime minister on Monday _ were a letdown for Zairians who had been expecting much more. Many anticipated Mobutu himself would appear and possibly appoint a new prime minister.

``I swear, it was a non-event, given the buildup of suspense and given the change that all of us were expecting,″ said Yoka Liye Mudaba, spokesman for the national electoral commission that had hoped to hold elections by the end of the year.

``I was expecting, at the very least, the terms of negotiations with the alliance. At the most, I was expecting the president to resign _ I’m really disappointed.″

Mobutu and Kabila sent envoys to the west African country of Togo for a two-day summit of African leaders who also are trying to end the crisis. Neither Kabila nor Mobutu was expected to attend the 53-nation Organization of African Unity summit, which starts Wednesday.

``I think one gives too much importance to the presence or absence of Kabila,″ Mobutu’s chief adviser, Honore Ngbanda Zambo-ko-Atumba, said before leaving for Togo.

``It’s not a matter of a dispute between two men. To think that would be a monumental mistake,″ Ngbanda said. ``We’re talking about the fate of an entire nation and all of the African region.″

Ngbanda will represent Mobutu at the summit. Kabila will be represented by Bizimana Karaha, his foreign affairs adviser, and Gaetan Kajudji, described as the rebels’ expert on European and American affairs.

Karaha said they might meet with the Zairian government representatives at the gathering.

Mobutu, 66 and ailing from prostate cancer, returned to Zaire on Friday after months spent recuperating abroad, in an effort to unite Zaire against the insurgency that has left nearly a third of the mineral-rich central African country in rebel hands.

On Monday, he accepted the resignation of his prime minister, Leon Kengo wa Dondo, who was ousted by Parliament last week, blamed for not giving the army enough financial and logistical support.

Across the Zaire River in Brazzaville, Congo, U.S. troops were preparing for the possible evacuation of the 500 Americans living in Zaire. French and Belgian troops are doing similar preparatory work in the Congolese capital.

Though the rebels are still far from Kinshasa, many fear a rampage by Zaire’s corrupt and badly paid soldiers if Mobutu dies or the rebels continue their advance. Two such looting sprees in 1991 and 1993 left hundreds of people dead and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed.

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