Urgent: Talks on Zaire

The Zairean government should listen to its African neighbors.

In recent days hundreds of thousands of Zairean refugees have made their way into Zambia and Tanzania. They are fleeing a conflict that continues to escalate, with government air strikes against three rebel-held towns in the eastern part of the country and the rebels, led by Laurent Kabila, threatening to retaliate. An estimated 150,000 Rwandan refugees remain in the makeshift Tingi Tingi camps in eastern Zaire; some 200,000 others are unaccounted for.

The rebel uprising began last fall, when ethnic Tutsis who had lived in eastern Zaire for decades were threatened with expulsion. It has since grown into a general rebellion.

If Zaire ignores the advice of the foreign ministers of Kenya, Cameroon, Tanzania, South Africa, Congo, and Zimbabwe, who left for the Zairean capital Kinshasa Feb. 18 to try to persuade the government to hold talks on solving the crisis, it does so at its own peril. Analysts say if Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city and the last major stronghold of the Zairean Army in the east of the country, falls to the rebels, as many believe it will, the government itself will fall.

The urgency of such talks was underscored by the recent government bombing campaign: It was the first aimed at civilians, whose support for the rebel movement has grown. Reports suggest Mr. Kabila, who says he is willing to hold peace talks with the government, also was a target.

Understandably, Kabila is widely seen by Zaireans as the country's best and only alternative to President Mobutu Sese Seko's 31 years of corrupt, authoritarian rule. Though Mr. Mobutu argues that military force is the only suitable response to Kabila's aggression, Zairean business groups, nongovernmental organizations, and some members of Mobutu's party maintain that negotiations with Kabila are the answer. They're right. Only Mobutu appears to believe otherwise.

A resolution to the conflict also is hindered by the involvement of neighboring Rwanda, Uganda, and, to a lesser extent, Burundi, believed to be aiding the rebels. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and French Foreign Minister Herv de Charette said at a recent meeting in Paris, these countries should steer clear of the rebellion. Their only involvement should be to support talks aimed at ending the war.

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