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Mobutu returns to war-torn Zaire

Thousands turn out to cheer ailing leader

December 17, 1996
Web posted at: 4:40 EST (2140 GMT)

In this story:

KINSHASA, Zaire (CNN) -- Zaire's veteran president, Mobutu Sese Seko, received a rapturous welcome home on Tuesday after four months in Europe. The ailing leader, who recently underwent cancer surgery, wants to prove he is still in control, despite advances by rebels who have captured the eastern strip of his central African nation.

Traditional bands played as Mobutu, 66, wearing his trademark leopard-skin cap, descended smiling and waving from his chartered jet after a flight from southern France.

For some, a symbol of unity

Up to 20,000 people -- some of them wearing imitation leopard-skin hats -- packed the international airport outside the capital Kinshasa to greet Mobutu, whose supporters describe him as the one symbol of unity amid Zaire's anarchy.

Many thousands more lined the 15 km (10 miles) from the capital to the airport.

Tight security surrounded the homecoming, with army sharpshooters on rooftops at the airport and civil guard troops in trucks along the road from the capital.

Smiling broadly, Mobutu walked down the steps from the aircraft with his wife, Bobi Ladawa, as cheering, drumming, music and chanting sounded around the airport.

Mobutu was to address the nation later on Tuesday, and many Zairians looked to him to conjure up a solution to end the Tutsi-led revolt.

What next?

Mobutu has dominated the life of the nation since seizing power in 1965. He bowed to international and domestic pressure for democratic reforms in 1990, but elections have yet to be held.

Aides say he is feeling better after surgery for cancer in Switzerland in August. He has been staying at his private villa at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin near Nice since November 4.

A pro-Mobutu Zairian newspaper, The Soft, has said he planned to stay in Zaire just two or three weeks before returning to complete his convalescence.

But officials and presidential aides have declined to specify how long he will remain in Zaire.

Zaire has rejected talks with rebels who control key eastern towns two months after launching a well-planned offensive against Mobutu's 31-year rule.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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