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Zaire’s president flies to Gabon as rebels advance on capital

May 7, 1997

KINSHASA, Zaire (AP) _ President Mobutu Sese Seko left his threatened capital today aboard his private Boeing 727 and flew to Gabon. With rebel troops approaching Kinshasa, it’s unclear whether he will come back.

The ailing dictator walked slowly from his plane, using a wooden staff and wearing his trademark leopard-skin hat, to a red-carpet welcome in the Atlantic city of Libreville, Gabon.

Mobutu ignored reporters who called out, asking whether he would return to Kinshasa.

After a welcome kiss from President Omar Bongo of Gabon, the Zairian president stepped into a burgundy Rolls Royce, bypassing the honor guard, and drove off to the presidential palace for a two-day conference.

He is meeting with the leaders of African countries who have supported him during his seven-month war with rebel leader Laurent Kabila. Heads of state from Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, Togo, Congo and Equatorial Guinea were to arrive later today.

Mobutu spokesmen said he would return Friday to Kinshasa, dismissing speculation he might be headed into exile following his failure to secure a cease-fire at a weekend summit.

``This meeting was planned before that summit,″ Information Minister Kin-Kiey Mulumba said. ``He is returning to Kinshasa afterward.″

One aide, however, said on condition of anonymity Tuesday that Mobutu probably would head to France.

Mobutu, 66, has a villa on the French Riviera where he spent months recuperating after prostate cancer treatment. France for decades helped prop up Mobutu’s regime.

Kinshasans ignored Mobutu’s heavily-armed motorcade today as it traveled through the streets toward the airport.

Mobutu has made no public statements since his face-to-face meeting Sunday with Kabila, who now controls about three-fourths of Zaire.

U.S. envoy Bill Richardson sought a peaceful settlement during the weekend talks aboard a South African ship off Congo. But Kabila repeated his demand that Mobutu resign. Mobutu, in turn, demanded an immediate cease-fire.

Kabila told Radio France International today that ``there is no cease-fire, so I don’t see why we should mark time. The troops have to advance. Taking Kinshasa is a matter of course.″

In any case, Mobutu’s nearly 32-year reign appears to be ending _ something most Zairians seem to welcome in Kinshasa. There were no signs of panic or increased military activity in the city of 6 million.

Pamphlets have been circulating in Kinshasa saying rebels are already in the city. The leaflets urge civilians to wear white arm bands or headbands ``to salute the liberation of Kinshasa.″

An unemployed teacher predicted Mobutu would not be back. ``If Mobutu is going to Gabon, it’s because the danger is right in front of him, because Kabila is at the door,″ Saidi Meta said.

South Korea announced today it would temporarily close its embassy in Kinshasa and evacuate its diplomats Thursday. It would be the first country to evacuate its full diplomatic staff, though the United States and others have troops standing by should they decide evacuations are needed.

Kabila has had a string of relatively easy victories since the rebellion began in October. Mobutu’s soldiers often have either fled from or joined the rebels rather than fight.

The government on Tuesday denied rebel claims that they had taken Mobutu’s hometown of Gbadolite, and said troops were battling to hold onto Kikwit and Kenge, 120 miles east of the city.

``It’s a big lie,″ the rebels’ justice minister Mwenze Kongolo said today. ``We have planes going into Kikwit this morning.″

The civil war has scattered more than 1 million Rwandan Hutus who fled to eastern Zaire in 1994. Most of the Rwandans returned home late last year, and tens of thousands in central Zaire awaiting a U.N. airlift home.

But one group of 50,000 refugees has trekked more than 700 miles across Zaire and is heading west toward the Congo border, U.N. officials say.

The World Food Program said Tuesday that the group has reached Mbandaka, 30 miles east of Congo, where the agency has food stockpiled.

The Rwandan Hutus fled their homeland to avoid retribution for the Hutu government-led massacre of 500,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The refugees have accused Kabila’s rebels _ many of them Zairian Tutsis _ of attacking them.

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