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Zairian rebels, Mobutu agree to begin talks


But rebels won't stop fighting in the meantime

March 27, 1997
Web posted at: 10:00 p.m. EST (0300)

LOME, Togo (CNN) -- Leaders of a rebel group in Zaire and the regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko agreed Thursday to sit down for face-to-face talks, perhaps leading to a cease fire that would end more than five months of fighting in central Africa's largest country.

But while agreeing in principle to the concept of a cease fire, the rebels refused to stop their military campaign until talks actually commence. Rebel radio claimed its troops were advancing on both the copper-rich Shaba Province and Mbuji-Mayi, the country's diamond center.

The Mobutu regime had been insisting on a cease fire as a precondition for negotiations, while rebels wanted talks as a precondition for a cease fire.

Agreement reached at summit in Togo

The compromise to start talking and stop fighting simultaneously was hashed out at a two-day summit in Lome, Togo, attended representatives of both sides, along with the presidents of Nigeria, Togo and Cameroon and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"The two delegations have reiterated their commitment to accept the principle of a cease fire and the principle of negotiations," according to a statement released after the talks ended Thursday in Lome.

U.N. officials indicated that the talks could begin in a matter of days, probably in South Africa.

"I don't think these talks will be easy," said Fred Eckhard, a spokesman for Annan. "But getting them started was the most important [development]."

But senior rebel sources told Reuters that they would not agree to actually stop fighting until a summit could be arranged between Mobutu and their leader, Laurent Kabila. However, the rebels said they were willing to begin talks to prepare for such a summit.

Britain bolsters its force in Congo

Kabila's rebel group, the Democratic Alliance for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, now controls about a quarter of Zaire. It is seeking the ouster of Mobutu, who has ruled the country since 1965.

The rebels accuse Mobutu, 66, who is ill with prostate cancer, of enriching himself off the country's vast mineral resources while ordinary Zairians live in poverty.

As the situation in Zaire has deteriorated, an international force of more than 1,000 troops -- most from the United States, France and Belgium -- has been stationed in neighboring Congo in case it becomes necessary to evacuate non-Zairian nationals from the country.

Thursday, Britain announced that it would send ships and hovercraft to the Congo this weekend, to bolster its small force already there.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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