Army 'Defending' Zaire's Capital More Ready to Run Than Fight

One soldier practices waving a white flag rather than a gun

Jean Boniface has a little piece of soft, white cloth. While innocuous-looking, the swatch of cotton fabric is another weapon contributing to the downfall of Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko.

As rebels rapidly approach the country's capital, Kinshasa, from the east, much of the Zairean Army is gearing up - not for a fight, but for surrender.

Like many others, Mr. Boniface has decided to place a white headband of surrender around his forehead when the rebel troops of Laurent-Desir Kabila come to town. He says he will take off his uniform, change into civilian dress, and welcome them as liberators.

After 11 years in the civil guard, which he joined to support his young family, Boniface has had enough of Mr. Mobutu. Sitting in his filthy barracks, he says he has not been paid for three months. And even if he received the $1 monthly wage, it would not be nearly enough to feed his children.

"Kabila is a man of the people. Mobutu is a man of the thieves," says Boniface, who put on civilian clothes for a recent interview as a "practice run." "I will go into the streets and tell Mr. Kabila I am with him. I am a professional soldier, and I will work for a professional government."

Boniface, a junior officer, is not alone in his willingness to switch sides. Military analysts say that while elite professional troops may defend the capital, many other soldiers will likely loot and desert instead.

Three decades of Mobutu's corrupt rule has reduced his Army to a begging, plundering band divided by rivalries. Its ineptitude during Kabila's seven-month uprising is perhaps unprecedented in the history of modern warfare.

With only light mortars and small arms, the rebels have taken half the giant country. They face an unmotivated Army that has lost half its hardware and the will to fight. Zairean soldiers run away when they hear Kabila is coming.

"Army? What Army?" says one diplomat here. "It's not a force to be reckoned with."

As well as gaining the people's hearts and minds, Kabila has growing support from neighboring countries who want to oust Mobutu. Analysts say the list has lengthened from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zambia, and Angola to include Tanzania, which is providing training for the rebels, and Zimbabwe and Eritrea, which are supplying arms.

The rebels have reportedly seized three more towns - Ilebo, Bowete, and Tshikapa - which would put them less than 200 miles from the capital. The fall of Ilebo, which is on a direct route to the capital, would be the most important victory since the rebels took over of the mining center Lubumbashi earlier this month.

Rumors of a second armed force marching on the capital from Angola in the west have not been confirmed, but open the possibility of an even quicker defeat. Kabila is believed to have amassed tens of thousands of fighters. Military analysts estimate the government has at most 10,000 men around Kinshasa, of which up to 5,000 are from the presidential guard.

Whether these troops will mount a defiant last stand is a question even for those clinging to power. "There is no one Mobutu can count on in the military," says a political source close to the president. "They [the Army] are adventurers, pillagers, and thieves. They say they will fight, but they can't be trusted."

A likely scenario is a repeat of le pillage, the frenzied looting by soldiers that swept the capital city in 1991 and 1993. Mindful this might occur again, thousands of Western troops, including Americans, are on alert across the Congo River in the Republic of the Congo to evacuate their own nationals.

Hopes of ending the conflict by negotiation instead of arms are fading. Few diplomats believe either side is truly interested in talking. They say Mobutu might step down voluntarily and even leave the country when the rebels arrive on the doorstep of the capital. But not before.

Military analysts report new government recruits and weapons stockpiled at the five military camps in and around Kinshasa, especially the hillside Tsha-Tshi camp where Mobutu is staying.

"If this military stayed loyal, and the rebels came, it would be very bloody. But the question is, would the Army fight?" asks one military analyst.

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