Zaire's Opposition Rolls Out Welcome Mat for Next Chief

Mobutu and Kabila were to meet yesterday in what mediators call last chance for peace.

Valentin Mubake Nombi has gone into hiding for three days, leaving orders for Kinshasa's citizens to hoist welcoming banners when the rebels of Laurent-Desir Kabila come to town.

Like many other opposition leaders, this spokesman of Zaire's dysfunctional parliament waits with a mixture of dread and anticipation for the finale of President Mobutu Sese Seko's dictatorship.

The streets of the capital were virtually empty Wednesday as Kinshasa's 5 million citizens remained in the safety of their homes. The opposition sent out leaflets calling for residents to observe a ville morte (dead town) strike and to have white flags handy and sing songs to greet the "liberators."

Mr. Mubake and other opposition figures have sent signals that they are ready to collaborate with Mr. Kabila, Zaire's presumed next leader. His troops are expected to arrive any day to complete their takeover of this Central African giant.

These politicians are not on either side of the battle and have had limited success in promoting democratic reform during seven years of political transition. They are unsure whether Kabila will have a place for them in the new Zaire.

Mubake said there was a campaign to help Kabila enter the capital without violence. But beyond that, he said his first priority was to hide in case rumors were true that government soldiers had orders to hunt down opposition politicians and kill them.

"I will try to disappear for my own safety for the next few days," said Mubake before leaving for what he hoped was a safe sanctuary. "We have some apprehensions about Kabila. But he is now a reality of future government, and we hope for the best."

For ordinary citizens, there is intense relief that, after nearly 32 years, Mobutu is finally going. But their hopes are tempered by fears of a binge of looting and shooting by Mobutu's troops in the final days of the regime. Soldiers have gone on looting sprees before, most recently in 1991 and 1993, after not being paid.

Western countries have thousands of troops stationed across the Congo River in the Congolese capital, Brazzaville, in case mayhem strikes. Their embassies in Kinshasa have issued instructions on evacuation procedures to the few remaining foreigners.

The timing of Kabila's arrival is expected to depend on the outcome of talks planned for yesterday between Mr. Mobutu and Kabila. Confusion over where to pick up Kabila delayed the meeting, which was to be held on a ship off Congo and mediated by South African President Nelson Mandela.

The talks take on more urgency with every mile the rebels advance. Mr. Mandela's deputy, Thabo Mbeki, told reporters Monday that the talks "may very well be the last chance" for a peaceful transition in Zaire.

Kabila has made clear that if nothing is achieved at the talks, his troops will take over the capital in the culmination of a dramatic seven-month campaign in which they have captured 80 percent of the country.

Kabila has given Mobutu this final opportunity to step down now.

South African mediators and the United States hope that a negotiated transition can be reached to avoid a bloodbath. The fighting is getting closer to the capital. And while many government soldiers are expected to desert, the more than 2,000 troops of the elite presidential guard may put up a fight - or at least attack suspected Mobutu opponents, civilian or military.

Both sides are believed to be receiving foreign help - the rebels from neighboring governments including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zambia, and Angola, all of whom are tired of Mobutu meddling in their internal affairs. According to diplomats, C-130 transport planes, supplied from the outside, have been shipping men and materials to the front to aid the rebel advance.

Mobutu is reportedly getting aid from his long-standing allies, the UNITA rebels of Angola, who are afraid of losing their supply routes when he goes. But the embattled dictator faces pressure on all sides to resign. In the latest sign of mounting pressure, Swiss officials said yesterday that Zairean prosecutors had asked them to freeze all of Mobutu's assets in the country.

A South African official told reporters that the proposal on the table was that Mobutu would stand down in favor of an interim president. A power-sharing government from his party and the rebels would run Zaire for a year before elections. The rebels in the past have rejected a coalition with their enemies and are unlikely to want to give up power they've so easily won.

Many of Mobutu's inner circle have already left the country. But there is speculation that the Army chief of staff, Gen. Dona Mahele Bokungu, and other generals are willing to work with Kabila - although they will not take action as long as Mobutu remains.

But even if the generals can keep their men from looting, diplomats say the city is flooded with arms. Soldiers may take off their uniforms and wave white flags, while still holding on to their weapons. This could open a new, violent chapter in Kinshasa.

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