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Sunday, May 18, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Zaire Capital Cheers Rebel Victory -- Kabila Takes Power, Renames His Country

Los Angeles Times

KINSHASA, Zaire - Guerrillas from Laurent Kabila's rebel army marched triumphantly into this sprawling capital yesterday and quickly moved to take control of the city and the country, effectively ending a seven-month civil war in Africa's third-largest nation.

A beaming Kabila told reporters at rebel headquarters in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi that he was assuming power immediately as the head of state of Zaire, which he called the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He said government military commanders had agreed to "answer to me," and he urged remnants of the defeated army to lay down their arms. Many soldiers went further, stripping off their uniforms and melting into the city's back streets.

Mobutu Sese Seko, the strongman who had beggared and brutalized Zaire for 32 years, flew yesterday to Rabat, the Moroccan capital, a day after he fled Kinshasa for his jungle palace in northern Zaire, according to a family member here. He is expected to go into permanent exile in southern France.

By nightfall yesterday, about 80 rebels held Kinshasa's Congo River port and 15 others guarded the iron gates of the giant Information Ministry complex, where the government television and radio station is based.

Government loyalists fled the country and Zairian soldiers put up little resistance to the final assault of rebel forces. Gunfire crackled in the capital as government troops abandoned the city, looting as they went.

Civilians ran jubilantly through the streets, waving palm fronds and flashing victory signs.

Kabila, speaking at rebel headquarters in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi, declared himself "president."

The 56-year-old rebel leader pledged to form a transitional government by Tuesday and issue a new constitution within 60 days.

Kabila said he had no plans for Mobutu: "He can stay in his village, but I think it is not very important at all."

Ten thousand rebel soldiers were heading into Kinshasa, he said. Kabila's foreign minister, Bizima Karaha, said the rebel leader planned to travel to the capital as soon as his security there was assured.

Improbable victory

The shift of power marks the improbable victory of a lifelong rebel whose past is marked more by obscurity and failure than inspiration. Kabila never seemed the leader to overthrow one of Africa's most powerful figures, a dictator who accumulated enormous wealth as his country fell into ruin.

Kabila started his rebel career as a follower of Patrice Lumumba, the nationalist and Soviet ally who served as this country's first post-colonial prime minister and was murdered in 1961. During the violence that accompanied independence from Belgium, Kabila participated in a string of unsuccessful revolts, including the period in 1965 when Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara brought 100 Cuban troops to help advance the revolution in what was then called the Belgian Congo.

Three times during the Cold War, the United States intervened directly to bolster Mobutu against armed attempts to overthrow him. In recent years, however, Washington has increasingly distanced itself from a ruler widely reviled as corrupt, tyrannical and a threat to neighbors.

Guevara wrote of Kabila: "A revolutionary leader . . . has to be serious and possess an ideology and a spirit of sacrifice to accompany one's goals. Until now, Kabila has not shown any of these traits."

How conflict began

Kabila's bid for power began seven months ago in Zaire's far east, when he was reportedly picked by Rwandan officials to head a hastily assembled coalition of forces that took advantage of a localized ethnic rebellion and rode it to power. Rwanda is governed by members of the Tutsi ethnic group, and they supported Zairian Tutsi who were ordered to leave Zaire.

In their campaign the rebels gobbled up ever-larger slices of a country as large as all of Western Europe. Western diplomats say that for months Kabila's goal has been to take power well before the end of May so he could attend a June 2 summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Zimbabwe, as Africa's newest political star.

Kabila will have to deal with the entrenched political opposition, such as supporters of the popular politician and one-time prime minister Etienne Tshisekedi, who has been calling for a negotiated settlement since early in the civil war.

There is also a concern that Mobutu loyalists will set up an armed opposition in Brazzaville, Congo, where President Pascal Lissouba has maintained close ties to Mobutu.

A cluster of finely dressed Zairian women in a Mercedes-Benz with Kinshasa plates - Mobutu's relatives - waited near the riverside in Brazzaville yesterday, reporting into cellular telephones on the arrival of Capt. Mobutu Kongolo, the deposed leader's son. By day's end, Mobutu's family and a few other loyalists were whisked to a Zairian government Boeing 727 at Brazzaville's airport.

Information from the Washington Post, New York Times, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Reuters and Associated Press is included in this report.

------------------------------- Update on developments in Zaire -------------------------------

-- Next for Mobutu: Zaire's ousted president Mobutu Sese Seko and his family fled to Morocco last night. The cancer-stricken Mobutu, 66, is expected to seek exile in France.

-- Assets blocked: The Swiss government announced that it is temporarily blocking all assets held by Mobutu and his family. Mobutu reputedly has become one of the world's richest men during his rule, while Zaire itself fell into poverty. He has been rumored to have stashed $4 billion in Switzerland.

-- Kabila's pledge: Rebel leader Laurent Kabila pledged to form a transitional government by Tuesday and issue a new constitution. He made no mention of elections that the United States has pressed him to organize.

-- Name Change: Kabila has rebaptized Zaire "the Democratic Republic of the Congo," reverting to the title used after independence from Belgium in 1960 and before Mobutu renamed the sprawling, mineral-rich country in 1971.

-- A new capital: For all the attention on Kinshasa, rumor has it the rebels prefer Lubumbashi for their capital, known to Belgian colonials as Elizabethville. It fell to the rebels on April 11 and is the capital of the province of Shaba, the region where rebel leader Laurent Kabila was born. The region is the headquarters of Zaire's copper and cobalt mining industry.

-- Expatriate alert: An American evacuation team was on alert in Brazzaville but had not received any order to evacuate the 300 or so Americans in Kinshasa. French, British, Belgian and Portuguese troops were also on standby.

Associated Press and Reuters

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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