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Zairian Rebel Leader Predicts Victory over Mobutu Imminent

By Stephen Buckley
The Washington Post
KINSHASA, Zaire

Zairian rebel leader Laurent Kabila said Monday that his forces could be in this capital city in the next "two or three days" and were already within 35 miles of Kinshasa's airport.

Kabila, whose rebel alliance controls about three-fourths of this vast central African country, said that if President Mobutu Sese Seko agreed to step down before the rebels reach Kinshasa, he would guarantee the president's safety, along with that of his family, news services reported from the southeast Zairian city of Lubumbashi.

But if Mobutu, whose 31-year rule has been marked by corruption and repression, does not resign, "we will have to chase him away in humiliation," he said.

"I once again appeal to Mobutu to hand over power peacefully to me," Kabila added. "But if he does not, my forces are ready to enter Kinshasa in the next two or three days."

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, met Monday with Kabila in Lubumbashi to try to ensure what he called "a soft landing" as the rebels' entrance into the city appears imminent.

Here in the capital, a source familiar with negotiations between Kabila and the president said Mobutu is expected to leave office within a week and allow Kabila to enter Kinshasa to form a transitional government.

"Mobutu is probably in the single digits in terms of the number of days he'll remain in power," the source said. "There will be a transitional government, and it's going to be led by Kabila."

The source said that South African officials are working out the final details of an agreement in which Mobutu will leave office essentially in exchange for a pledge by Kabila's rebels to enter Kinshasa peacefully.

The South African government, which has been deeply involved in trying to settles Zaire's seven-month-old conflict, has played down the imminence of Mobutu's departure because South African President Nelson Mandela "is very deliberately addressing the issue of Mobutu's dignity," the source said.

Monday's developments came a day after Kabila met with Mobutu on a South African navy vessel for their first face-to-face talks since the rebellion began last October.

It was unclear whether the evolving agreement for Mobutu to step down arose from Sunday's negotiations.