Rebels waging an uprising in eastern Zaire are on the verge of two coveted victories, leaving the crumbling regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko no choice but to negotiate.
Over the weekend, the troops of rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila had advanced to just 60 miles outside the strategic town of Kisangani, where the United Nations evacuated all foreign aid workers due to the deteriorating security situation. The mainly Tutsi rebels also claim to have captured Tingi Tingi, causing about 170,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees staying there to flee.
Independent sources confirmed rebels' claim to have captured another vital prize, Kindu, Reuters reported Sunday. Its fall would place them in a strong position to negotiate the end to Mr. Mobutu's dictatorial 32-year reign. Analysts say the fall would be a devastating military and psychological blow for the underpaid and undisciplined Army, which has been unable to claim one victory since the rebellion flared in October when Zairean authorities tried to expel ethnic Tutsis.
Kisangani and Kindu have airports and would give the rebels their first foothold on the Zaire river, an important transport artery that flows to the capital, Kinshasa. More importantly, Kindu and Kisangani are the vanguard points of Zaire's now flailing offensive.
Mr. Kabila was in South Africa last week with the smile of Cheshire cat, confident that he had backed Zaire's government into such a corner that it would have to take him seriously. "We must assume that peace can be found," he told reporters, expressing the hope that negotiations would begin soon.
But a cease-fire is still elusive, despite a plethora of diplomatic initiatives coming from all directions. Indeed, military analysts believe Kabila will want to capture Kinsangani before beginning negotiations, to enhance his bargaining position.
The UN, the United States, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), South Africa, and Kenya have all been rushing around the past couple of weeks trying to organize African summits and negotiations between the belligerents to prevent the collapse of Zaire, and with it a regional catastrophe.
South Africa, seeking a diplomatic triumph to claim its logical role as the continent's peacemaker, last week hosted Kabila as well as an envoy of Mobutu, Honore Ngbanda. The public line is that these were merely "close proximity talks" - not face-to-face - held under the watchful eyes of South Africans, joint UN and OAU special envoy Mohamed Sahnoun, and US Undersecretary of State for Africa George Moose.
Mobutu, who is ailing in France, is clearly under pressure on all fronts. His government is anxious, however, not to be seen as capitulating. It has sent out conflicting responses regarding peace talks - prompting speculation that Zaire is divided over the prospect of negotiations.
Despite Mr. Ngbanda's presence in South Africa, Zaire continued to insist that it would not enter talks with rebels until all foreign troops left the country. By this it means Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, allies of Kabila which deny Zaire's claims that they are supporting the uprising.
It is hard to judge the success of the South African mediating efforts, which participants have cloaked in secrecy to prevent leaks that would embarrass the Zairean government. Also on the table is a five-point UN peace plan, which includes a cease-fire and the departure of foreign meddlers and mercenaries.
Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, jealous of South Africa stealing the diplomatic limelight, has called his own meeting of regional leaders March 18-19. Another initiative includes a summit called by the OAU for Lome, Togo on March 26. The summit will address the possible deployment of an African buffer force, a proposal that has come up repeatedly but so far failed to materialize.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said on Friday he would try to persuade the international community to send a multinational force to the troubled region. Diplomats say that some consensus is emerging among African and Western nations about the need for such a force. But such an idea is riddled with complexities, such as guaranteeing the neutrality of participants and deciding which side of a conflict to back.