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Mobutu returns to Zaire, will meet with rebel leader

May 10, 1997

KINSHASA, Zaire (AP) _ Ending speculation he was fleeing into exile, President Mobutu Sese Seko returned to his capital Saturday reportedly prepared to discuss a handover of power with rebel leader Laurent Kabila.

Mobutu, 66 and ill with prostate cancer, agreed to discuss a transition of power in a meeting with Kabila on Wednesday in Pointe Noire, Congo, said South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, whose country has been acting as a mediator in Zaire’s war.

Kabila’s forces have seized three-fourths of Zaire and claim to be within 30 miles of Kinshasa, the capital. With Kabila’s fighters closing in, Mobutu had left the country for a summit of regional leaders in Gabon on Wednesday, raising questions about whether he was giving up and heading into exile.

Instead, Mobutu returned, and agreed to a second round of face-to-face talks with Kabila to try to end the war.

``The meeting should conclude these negotiations. The substantial questions, the principal questions, must be resolved on Wednesday,″ said Mbeki, who met with Mobutu earlier Saturday in Libreville, Congo. ``Those questions involve the transition; President Mobutu’s place.″

It was uncertain, however, whether Mobutu was willing to make any concessions to move peace talks out of their current stalemate. Mobutu himself said nothing, driving to his private Boeing 727 at Libreville’s airport in a Rolls-Royce and staying out of sight once he landed in Kinshasa under extraordinary security that underscored the government’s concerns about the rebel threat.

Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the control tower at Kinshasa’s airport and lined the highway leading into the city. A helicopter flew just ahead of the motorcade, which was accompanied by military vehicles laden with machine guns.

Despite international pressure to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the seven-month war, Kabila has not committed himself to a cease-fire. The government acknowledges there has been heavy fighting around the town of Kenge about 120 miles east of Kinshasa, but says its troops are holding their own against Kabila’s army.

If talks do take place Wednesday, they will test the effectiveness of weeks of shuttle diplomacy by South African leaders and the United States’ U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson. The first meeting last week failed to resolve what one Western diplomat called Mobutu’s and Kabila’s ``irreconcilable differences.″

Kabila said Mobutu must resign immediately and surrender power to a transition authority led by himself, or face a rebel attack on the capital. But Mobutu refused to quit, saying he would give up the presidency only after elections to choose a new leader.

In Kinshasa, Zaire’s Parliament took an important step Saturday toward preparing itself for Mobutu’s departure from power by selecting a parliamentary president, a seat that has been empty for two years. By law, the president would take power in the event of Mobutu’s death or resignation.

Parliament _ dominated by Mobutu supporters _ chose Monsignor Laurent Monsengwo Pasenya, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Kisangani. Opposition parties consider Monsengwo too close to the Mobutu camp, and boycotted the session.

In Gabon on Thursday, Mobutu acknowledged being too ill to contest elections, and his agreement to discuss a change in power with Kabila himself indicated one or both men was moving closer to making concessions.

Richardson and the South Africans have been pushing for what they term a ``soft landing″ of the rebels in Kinshasa, whereby Mobutu would be eased out with a minimum of humiliation and Kabila’s movement would take power with a minimum of bloodshed.

In rebel-held Lubumbashi, Kabila gave mixed signals about whether he would bow to pressure and halt his advance toward Kinshasa.

``We are waiting. We want to solve this through peaceful dialogue,″ he said. But he also said that ``nobody has officially asked me to halt the offensive. We are continuing.″

Whether by force, illness or negotiations, it has become clear that Mobutu is on his way out of power. Diplomats in the capital say some of his top military officials have already left or sent their families out, fearing violence toward Mobutu’s associates when the president leaves power.

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