US Crafts New Zaire With Warnings, Talk

Envoy gets Mobutu to negotiate his exit, Kabila to accept West's concerns. Meeting may come soon.

Blunt talking and diplomatic arm-twisting helped American envoy Bill Richardson achieve what many thought impossible - persuade Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko and rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila to meet face to face.

US Ambassdor to the UN Richardson's announcement Wednesday that after weeks of squabbling the two men would meet - as soon as today on a South African ship in the Atlantic Ocean near Gabon - fed hopes for a peaceful end to Mr. Mobutu's 31-year rule.

Mobutu may still cancel at the last minute. And it is possible that even if the two men meet, they will come to no agreement and that violence will accompany Kabila's expected march into Kinshasa, the capital.

But Mr. Richardson apparently was able to break through the ailing despot's myopic isolation and persuade him that he had to meet his nemesis. Likewise, the American envoy successfully got the message through to Kabila that he would be seen as an international pariah, and denied much-needed financial aid, if he did not agree to talk.

"It was an ingenious formula," says a diplomatic source. "A South African host, international waters, UN auspices, no preconditions, and no preset agenda. For every objection, Richardson had an answer."

Mobutu, who has been diagnosed with cancer, has withdrawn to a military camp on the edge of the capital, surrounded only by a small circle of family and confidants. They have been urging him to cling to power, despite the fact that Kabila's rebel troops have taken most of the country during the past seven months and are now just a few days march from the capital.

Richardson appears to have shattered Mobutu's illusions by repeatedly stressing that Kabila's arrival was inevitable. Without offering promises or making threats, he painted three scenarios for Mobutu: be killed, flee in humiliation when the rebels arrive, or negotiate an honorable way out now.

Mobutu did not agree to step down, but a diplomatic source says, "In accepting negotiations, Mobutu is accepting to negotiate the modalities of his departure."

The easy part was persuading Kabila that he should drop his precondition that talks be held only if Mobutu's exit was at the top of the agenda.

Kabila was reminded that his image as a defender of human rights has been tainted by recent accusations that his rebels murdered hundreds of Rwandan Hutu refugees. Kabila was also told it would be unacceptable to deny humanitarian aid to refugees and that he would enjoy no cooperation from the West if he did not embrace democratic reforms such as elections. Many neighboring countries, although lending moral and military aid to Kabila, are just as interested as the West in ensuring Zaire's stability.

Diplomats who have viewed the former Marxist as an unknown quantity have taken Kabila's receptiveness to Richardson as a promising sign that, by and large, he will heed Western pressure in the future.

"We hope he will be a responsible leader, but we don't know for sure," says one Western diplomat.

They know that Kabila has adopted free-market rhetoric, surrounded himself with US-trained aides, and pragmatically signed deals with international mining companies. They say he is aware that he will need Western support in the form of billions of dollars of aid to rebuild the dilapidated infrastructure of the country.

"He's probably going to be reasonable. He seemed to listen to the message that he needs the international community and that these talks could enhance his relations with the West," says one diplomat.

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