Battle for River City Seen as Turning Point In War Over Zaire

After five months of threatening to destabilize the heart of Africa, the uprising in Zaire appears to be reaching a turning point with the battle for the strategic river city of Kisangani.

With rebels amassing on the outskirts of the last government stronghold in eastern Zaire, the regime of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko has agreed to accept a five-point United Nations peace plan. The rebels in turn told a Dutch mediator this weekend that they would consider cease-fire talks.

Resolving the conflict, which seemed unresolvable just weeks ago, is of paramount importance to Zaire's neighbors and to Western powers. Their fear has been that a prolonged war in Central Africa would engulf many other countries and cause the volatile region to burst apart.

"I would say there is new ground for the next round of talks," Dutch

After conquering a 900-mile-long strip of Zaire ... rebels have apparently pushed Mobutu's regime to its knees.

Development Minister Jan Pronk told reporters after meeting rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila in his headquarters in Goma, Zaire, on Saturday.

As many observers predicted, the fight for Kisangani is proving decisive.

Before reaching Kisangani, the rebels have conquered, with remarkable ease, a 900-mile-long strip of territory since launching their bid to oust Mr. Mobutu in October. The mainly Tutsi rebellion erupted after the Zairean government took away citizenship from ethnic Tutsis and attempted to evict them from the country.

Now, hovering at the gateway of some of the country's rich copper and diamond deposits, the rebels have apparently forced Mobutu's regime to its knees.

Zaire, Africa's third-biggest country, is also among the continent's richest countries in mineral deposits. Whoever controls those minerals effectively controls the country.

The rebels now have overrun territory believed to contain gold reserves worth $1.47 billion. The insurgents are only 300 miles north of Lubambashi, the hub of the vital cobalt and copper belt. Taking Kisangani, an important diamond-trading center, would place them firmly on the march toward Mbuji-Mayi, the country's diamond capital.

While the Zairean government dreads losing Kisangani, the fight to take it has also been sobering for Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire.

After being able to walk into towns with virtually no resistance, Kisangani is proving to be the most difficult target so far, thanks to the support of Serb mercenaries and Rwandan Hutu soldiers enlisted by the Zairean government.

Yesterday, sources told Reuters that Zaire's Army had planted land mines in Kisangani in an effort to check the rebel advance, while ordinary citizens fled the city in canoes down the Zaire River.

This perhaps may explain Kabila's sudden willingness to consider the UN plan, which includes among other points the withdrawal of foreign fighters and an international conference.

Many regional diplomats have expected Kabila to be more conciliatory once Kisangani is firmly in his hands. Recent US-backed attempts by South Africa to mediate have failed to secure a cease-fire, with Kabila insisting on direct talks with Mobutu before agreeing to a truce.

What the rebels want is simple: to end Mobutu's 32-year rule. Indeed, observers wonder why the dictator is bothering to hold on to power. Diagnosed with cancer, he spends most of his time in southern France. And he is estimated to have amassed a fortune of more than $5 billion - which is sitting safely outside Zaire - to live out his final days in comfort.

But logic is different from will, as one regional diplomat pointed out: "This is not going to be settled easily. It's going to be a long process."

Western mediators are desperately scrambling to avoid a deepening of the power vacuum, which could cause Zaire to implode. Mobutu's reign of neglect has succeeded in reducing this former Belgian colony to an impoverished wreck, with its infrastructure and political opposition in disarray.

Kabila himself may not prove to be the man to fill that vacuum. Although his popularity has increased with every military victory, he has shown little proven leadership ability in his 30-year career as an obscure revolutionary. Some analysts question whether he is even a competent military chief, and suspicions are rife that his allies Rwanda and Uganda are the true architects of his successful campaign.

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