Zaire and Rebels May Trade Words Instead of Bullets

After five months of stunning military successes, the rebels in eastern Zaire appears to be moving into a new arena: dialogue.

Africa's leading statesman, South African President Nelson Mandela, announced last week that his government was trying to set up talks between envoys of rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila and Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to end the conflict at the volatile heart of Africa.

South African officials warn that the initiative, cloaked in secrecy after its revelation embarrassed the Zairean government, will be a "long process." And both sides vow to continue to fight.

But since the initiative was announced Wednesday, there has been a lull in combat, with no signs of the fierce offensive the rebels threatened if Zaire didn't agree to negotiations by last Friday.

The rebel advance poses the biggest threat ever to President Mobutu's 32-year reign. It also threatens to draw in neighboring countries, including Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania.

The rebels, with the apparent backing of Rwanda and Uganda, have captured a 900-mile strip of eastern Zaire. They are now advancing toward the strategic towns of Kisangani and Kindu, which Zaire has designated the vanguard of its counteroffensive.

But this much-vaunted fight to the last by Mobutu's underpaid and disorganized forces has failed to make a major impact. They have largely been on the retreat, despite help from foreign mercenaries, including Serbs, and the use of Ukrainian-made fighter jets.

The war, which erupted in October after ethnic Tutsis were ordered to leave the country, entered a new dimension last week when the government bombed three rebel-held towns, killing at least 21 people, mostly civilians. In return, the mainly Tutsi rebels have threatened Zairean military bases. Now the Zairean government threatens more air raids, despite the South African peace initiative and three others, which have come to the fore. Mr. Kabila told the Associated Press that some sort of rebel advance was needed to pressure Zaire to negotiate. Zaire's defense ministry said yesterday that the rebels had likely captured the town of Kalima.

Aside from the South African mediation attempt, the United Nations Security Council last week proposed a five-point peace proposal to prevent an explosion in the volatile region. And Kenya announced it would host a summit March 12 to discuss conflict resolution in various parts of Africa.

It is not clear how the talks in Cape Town will progress, if at all. After angering the Zairean government by making its mediation attempt public, South Africa is now trying to throw secrecy over the process. The talks were expected to be held over the weekend, but it could not be confirmed if they had taken place.

A backdrop to the conflict are the up to 400,000 Rwandan refugees wandering the forests of eastern Zaire. The Zairean rebels say tens of thousands of armed Rwandan Hutu refugees, fueled by promises of food and hostility toward the rebels' Rwandan Tutsi allies, are using the camps as bases to help Zaire.

Previously, Mobutu's government said foreign troops must withdraw from Zaire before peace talks proceed. It pinpoints Rwanda and Burundi's Tutsi regimes and Uganda - which all deny claims that they are backing the rebels.

However, pressure from the opposition and even within Mobutu's own party is building on him to negotiate.

If it succeeds, the peace initiative will be the happy culmination of efforts by African states to seek dialogue, rather than military intervention, on a continent awash with conflicts.

Diplomats say that negotiations are a preferred option. But before last week, things had gotten so bad in eastern Zaire that some regional leaders were murmuring about reviving proposals for a pan-African intervention force.

Proposals for a peacekeeping force have been mooted time and again over the past year, most recently in November. Skeptics question the viability of outside intervention. They say it would have to have a clear political mission, and question how to determine the neutrality of participants as African conflicts grow increasingly internationalized.

South Africa, which has one of the most modern armed forces on the continent, has balked before at getting involved in peacekeeping. But officials last week announced that South Africa would be willing to contribute up to 1,000 men if an African force were formed under UN auspices. They said a consensus was emerging between the US and regional leaders that outside intervention may be necessary in Zaire.

However, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said recently that he regretted the jettisoning of the peace force and saw difficulties in trying to assemble a new one with Western support.

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