By Norm Dixon
With the rebels of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire-Congo (ADFL) just a few days' march from the capital, Kinshasa, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko suddenly left Zaire on May 7 to attend a meeting of pro-French African leaders in Gabon. The dictator confounded rumours that he would not return, flying back to Kinshasa on May 10 after a meeting South African deputy president Thabo Mbeki in Libreville.
The people of Kinshasa left no doubt as to the course they would prefer Mobutu to take. Crowds of people booed and jeered as his motorcade of 12 limousines, three jeeps with mounted machine-guns and anti-aircraft artillery, and hundreds of heavily armed troops raced through the streets to the Kinshasa international airport, where his private Boeing 727 was waiting.
London Times reporter Sam Kiley reported that young people defiantly chanted "President Kabila! President Kabila" as Mobutu passed.
Face-to-face talks between Mobutu and ADFL leader Laurent Kabila on May 5 aboard a South African navy ship did nothing to stave off the inevitable fall of the Mobutu regime.
At the talks, Mobutu proposed that he remain president in an "inclusive" transitional administration charged with the preparation of elections. He would relinquish power only to an elected successor. The US and South African government mediators openly sided with this plan.
Kabila stuck to his demand that Mobutu resign immediately and allow the rebels to take power and arrange Zaire's first democratic elections.
Even after the collapse of the talks, US envoy Bill Richardson continued to pressure Kabila to agree to an immediate cease-fire. A letter signed by US President Clinton was delivered to Kabila by Richardson.
State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns reported that Richardson had made it clear to Kabila that he faced "potential consequences" if he insisted on taking Kinshasa militarily. "Mr Kabila understands what's at stake for him and his reputation. He now needs to think about being a responsible person who can lead a government", Burns said.
Kabila and Mobutu are scheduled to meet again on May 14.
The ADFL's advance continues. On May 3, rebel radio claimed to have reached Kenge, 190 kilometres east of Kinshasa. On May 6, the provincial capital Bandundu, 250 kilometres north-west of Kinshasa, fell without a fight.
In the north, rebels are approaching Gbadolite, the site of Mobutu's palatial hideaway, from where he usually rules.
Kikwit, 400 kilometres from the capital, has become the staging post for the final offensive. Hundreds of rebel fighters are daily arriving at the town's airport, transported by two Boeings of the state-owned airline, now in rebel hands. Motorists report seeing rebels 60 kilometres from Kinshasa.
In Kinshasa, leaflets are being openly distributed calling on residents to "carry a white scarf or handkerchief to welcome the liberation of Kinshasa", the
Washington Post reported on May 7. Rebel Voice of the People is broadcasting appeals to government soldiers to present themselves to rebel commanders, saying "A surrender is important because it will avoid bloodshed".
Rebels also report that 80 French mercenaries have been deployed at the Kinshasa international airport.
Heavy fighting, the first in almost eight months of civil war, was reported at Kenge on May 9 before rebels pushed back Mobutu's elite Israeli-trained presidential guard, backed by UNITA troops from Angola and soldiers of the genocidal former Rwandan regime.
Meanwhile, the ADFL has sent shock waves through South African business circles by its decision to nationalise the railways in Shaba province and expel the South African managing director of the railway company, Sizarail.
Sizarail is a joint venture between South Africa's state-owned Spoornet, Belgian Railways and Zairean capitalists. The rebels acted after Sizarail was discovered attempting to move its locomotives and rolling stock back to South Africa.