- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

GABORONE, Botswana — Rwandan-backed rebels in the Congo demanded yesterday that President Joseph Kabila cede power to a transitional government, but rival Ugandan-backed rebels distanced themselves from the idea.
Adolphe Onusumba, president of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), backed by Rwanda, left reconciliation talks in Gaborone saying: "That is a must."
"Of course he cannot stay in power" until elections are held, Mr. Onusumba said of Mr. Kabila, who replaced his slain father, Laurent Kabila, as head of state in January.
But Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the other main rebel group in the Congo, the Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Front (FLC), told AFP: "I'm surprised that they say that. It is not for them to decide, and it is not for us to say. It is for the people of Congo to decide whether Kabila stays in power."
The two men were speaking a day after Foreign Minister Leonard She Okitumbu said elections could not be held for three years because a census, a referendum, and the elaboration of a new constitution would have to be undertaken first.
Observers in Gaborone have credited Mr. Kabila's willingness to revive the peace process, which was moribund under his father, to growing confidence on the 30-year-old president's part that he could muster enough popular support to win elections.
Mr. Kabila attended the opening of the talks here on Monday, but left an hour later after a closed-door meeting with the RCD and the FLC.
Unlike Mr. Onusumba, who left yesterday for Johannesburg and then the Congo, Mr. Bemba planned to remain in Gaborone until the preparatory peace talks end tomorrow.
Mr. Onusumba left the meeting talking tough, boasting that his rebel group had the most widespread support and saying defiantly that the RCD would maintain its ties with the Kigali government.
"They are our neighbors and we will keep our ties with them," he said. "We need to have ties between neighbors."
Mr. Onusumba bristled at recent reports that Mr. Bemba's force commands wider backing.
"We have a Congolese army. We have people in eight provinces and Bemba only in two provinces," he declared.
Mr. Onusumba told reporters he was leaving the meeting to attend to matters on the ground.
The RCD is considered to be unpopular even in the eastern part of the Congo, which it controls. Observers say the population in eastern Congo would prefer Mr. Kabila to the destructive rule of the rebels.
The delegates assembled here — from the government, the rebel movements, opposition political groups, and civil society — are to decide the time, place, agenda and rules for a national peace dialogue set out in the Lusaka, Zambia, peace accord signed by the belligerents in July 1999.
It makes no mention of a transitional government.
Aides to the facilitator, former Botswana President Sir Ketumile Masire, said the talks were proceeding slowly, but fairly smoothly.
Delegates were still discussing the agenda for the national dialogue, with the thorny issues of where and when it will take place to be discussed today.
"The real talks are taking place" today, several delegates remarked to AFP. Some expressed frustration that the talks had not progressed beyond issues on which most could easily agree.
"They all wanted to make long speeches to show their good will, but it is just talk, and at this rate, we will not be able to finish here by Friday," declared a representative from a rebel movement, who asked not to be named.
In Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, U.N. special representative Kamel Morjane hailed the Gaborone talks as a move in the "right direction."
"The movement we see in Gaborone" toward a return to peace "is a good sign in the right direction," Mr. Morjane said at a news conference.
Mr. Morjane, who heads the U.N. mission in the Congo, said, however: "The road remaining to be traveled is still long and littered with obstacles," pointing to what he called the "disconcerting complexity of the problem."
The formal dialogue will pave the way for elections and the adoption of a new constitution as well as the disarmament of the rebels, who rose up against Laurent Kabila in August 1998, starting a war that drew in six nations and left an estimated 2.5 million people dead.


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