With Kabila aboard, Zaire peace talks to begin Sunday
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May 3, 1997
Web posted at: 10:08 p.m. EDT (0208 GMT)
POINTE NOIRE, Congo (CNN) -- As Zairian rebels advanced to within 100 miles of the capital city of Kinshasa, their leader, Laurent Kabila, made a belated appearance in this port city where peace talks are to begin Sunday.
Kabila boarded a South African naval vessel by helicopter Saturday, a day later than expected. His failure to appear Friday infuriated Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko and diplomats who have been working for weeks to bring the two together.
Smiling, relaxed and wearing a dark blue safari suit, Kabila was greeted by South African Defense Minister Joe Modise. Another helicopter followed Kabila carrying several members of his entourage.
Kabila planned to remain aboard the ship overnight while Mobutu, who is in Pointe Noire, has promised mediators that he will arrive Sunday.
The face-to-face talks, which are to be mediated by South African President Nelson Mandela, are aimed at preventing a bloody fight for Kinshasa. Kabila's troops have captured most of the vast country and are expected to take Zaire's capital in a matter of weeks, perhaps sooner, unless Kabila calls them off.
Kabila has demanded that Mobutu step down, something the president has steadfastly refused to do, but Kabila appears to have the upper hand.
Backed by heavy weapons, his increasingly disciplined forces captured Mobutu's Lisala birthplace Saturday and the town of Kenge, 125 miles from the capital.
Refugees flown home
In their wake, the rebels have left some 80,000 Rwandan refugees who are seeking to return home. Most of them are sick and starving, and the U.N. has begun airlifting the worst cases to Rwanda. Slightly under 4,000 have been flown back so far, including 1,319 on Saturday.
The rebels have given humanitarian agencies until late June to get the refugees out of the country.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, urged U.S. citizens in Zaire Saturday to leave and advised others against going there. It cited "deteriorating security and the political situation" and the "potential for unrest throughout the country."
Kabila is said to be in no hurry to settle for peace. In fact, one diplomat said he believes that Kabila is looking for any excuse not to meet Mobutu.
Kabila blamed his no-show Friday on security concerns, issues the South Africans say they have addressed. But at one point, a frustrated Mandela is reported to have called Kabila and shouted at him during their conversation.
'A space for dialogue'
"Certainly we are not going to solve all the problems of Zaire today," said U.N. envoy Mohamed Sahnoun. "What we are doing here is creating a space for dialogue."
Sources say the diplomats involved in the negotiations seek an agreement in which Mobutu would step down for health reasons and appoint an interim president until elections could be held.
This would allow Kabila and his forces to enter Kinshasa peacefully.
Mobutu's aides say talks will focus on a peaceful transition with elections open to all. They reject suggestions that the meeting is a face-saver to allow the president to stand down with dignity.
A White House official on Saturday, responding to reports that U.S. envoy Bill Richardson was carrying a letter to President Clinton from Mobutu indicating the Zairian president would step down, said "I would not read it that way."
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