S. Africa Rolls Up Welcome Mat for Ex-officers

This week, it tries to deport three Zairean generals it accuses of plotting a rebellion.

Last year's downfall of a dictator in Zaire (now Congo) has ricocheted into South Africa.

Three former military officers of late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko are trying hard not to be booted out of South Africa, which once gave them refuge as a way to prevent bloodshed during the transition.

The officers and their families had been living in Johannesburg's wealthy suburbs since they fled Zaire last May.

In 1993, Kpama Baramoto, former head of Mobutu's civil guard, had installed his wife and seven children in two adjacent mansions in the millionaire suburb of Wendywood.

This week, Mr. Baramoto, Zaire's former Defense Minister Mudima Mavuatake, and Ngbale Nzimbi, the head of Mobutu's presidential guard took Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi to court.

The three want an order forcing Mr. Buthelezi to keep his "undertaking" that they may stay in South Africa. Buthelezi, for his part, admits he treated the generals with respect but denies he made any promises. More recently, he has repeatedly tried to have them deported to Congo.

The officers' sojourn in South Africa has become perhaps the single most important factor affecting relations between the governments of President Nelson Mandela and President Laurent Kabila, who ousted Mobutu last May.

Planning an insurrection?

Mr. Kabila has demanded the generals' return, claiming they stole tens of millions of dollars from state coffers, funds he says they are using to prepare for an insurrection. Other states in the region back this demand, fearing instability in what is now Congo could affect them as well.

When Mobutu's regime collapsed in May, President Nelson Mandela was attempting to engineer a "soft landing" for Kabila. His initiative, backed by the United States and the United Nations, was based on the argument that Kabila would seize power anyway and a negotiated transfer was preferable to a battle for the capital. In the end, little came of the settlement, but Mobutu's troops put up no more than token resistance.

An affidavit prepared for the High Court by the police minister tells for the first time how Mandela's government, backed by other states in the region, felt that allowing Mobutu's top officers refuge in South Africa would increase the chances of the soft landing.

The affidavit continues: "In ... 1997, my Cabinet colleagues and I received reports from our intelligence personnel that the three applicants were involved in activities which were aimed at destabilizing [Congo]."

Human rights quandary

Should Buthelezi win the right to deport the generals, a human rights quandary still awaits: South Africa's Constitution outlaws the death penalty, but execution may well be what the generals face back home.

A court affidavit by the generals' attorney states: "The territory of [Congo] is ruled by warlords of whom Mr. Kabila is merely the chieftain.... Indeed the probability is that Mr. Kabila will have all the applicants murdered."

A senior intelligence operative involved in the investigation concedes it is a public relations disaster in the making. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: "It would be embarrassing if they were to be deported and shot on the tarmac on arrival."

As a result, South Africa has sought an assurance from Kabila's government that, if deported, the generals will be treated in accordance with accepted norms. However, Kabila's reputation as a democrat is little better than Mobutu's. Kabila has repeatedly stymied a UN probe into allegations his ragtag army massacred Rwandan refugees. News reports three weeks ago said Kabila ordered the execution of 21 people after a military court convicted them on charges of "murder, armed robbery, or both." Last week, he ordered the arrest of an opposition leader.

Among the claims against the generals is that they negotiated with a South African mercenary outfit, Stabilco. A raid on Baramoto's house last month netted, among other bits of allegedly incriminating evidence, what the intelligence officer described as "an order form for a small army" from Stabilco.

A member of Stabilco, who asked not to be named, last week admitted Stabilco had negotiated with Baramoto. He also confirmed Stabilco boss Mauritz le Roux maintained a relationship with Baramoto until last month, but claimed the "order form" dated from before Mobutu's fall.

The generals were arrested under immigration laws on Dec. 13. Their version is that they left South Africa for Tanzania "for a holiday," but that bad weather forced the aircraft to land in an "unknown" country.

The government affidavits claim the generals had a clandestine meeting in Congo, right under Kabila's nose. The pilot of the charter aircraft, Ivan Pienaar, backs that version. Buthelezi has so far tried unsuccessfully three times to have them deported.

This week, the generals will try their best to depict their deportation as a matter of life and death.

Buthelezi may well agree, but will almost certainly argue the life of Kabila's nation, imperfect as it may be, is more important.

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