President Laurent Kabila's key regional allies in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gathered Friday in Kinshasa for talks, a day after a peace-making session in Gabon collapsed for lack of participants.
Meanwhile the head of a key Uganda-based rebel group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), called for the former president of Botswana, Ketumile Masire, to mediate between the parties, and not Gabonese President Omar Bongo.
MLC leader Jean-Pierre Bemba said that Masire was the only person he would accept as mediator.
"Kabila should now get back to the Lusaka Accords and let the facilitator chosen by all parties (Masire) convene a meeting for inter-Congolese dialogue," Bemba told AFP in Kigali from his headquarters at Gbadolite in the northern province of Equateur.
"The failure of the Libreville meeting was predictable," the head of the other main rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), Adolphe Onusumba said from his base in Goma, capital of Kivu Province on the border with Rwanda.
Onusumba also said Kabila should abide by the Lusaka peace accords, signed in July 1999, and stressed that for "peace to return to the DRC", there should be sincere talks and a "real referee", who could be none other than Masire.
On Thursday Kabila, accompanied by a 200-strong delegation, made a fruitless trip to the Gabonese capital Libreville for what his government had billed as a "dialogue and debate" session with rebels and top opposition politicians.
Neither of the two main rebel groups fighting the regime sent anybody, and key opposition politicians also stayed away, so the meeting was postponed until at least early January.
Kabila and Bongo then issued a joint statement saying they had decided "to entrust President Omar Bongo and the Gabonese government with the task of making useful contact with people in the outside opposition, included the armed rebels, to decide on a new date for talks at the beginning of January 2001."
However rebel leaders, backed by Uganda and Rwanda, hinted on Friday that they would show no more enthusiasm for future talks in Gabon than they had for Thursday's abortive meeting, declaring that only Masire would be acceptable as a neutral "referee".
Meanwhile President Sam Nujoma of Namibia, a key Kabila ally, arrived here early Friday and went into talks with Kabila, officials here said.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, another regional ally, had been in the DRC capital since Thursday night and an Angolan delegation was due later Friday.
Officials gave no details of the aim of the talks here, but Mugabe faces increasing domestic opposition to involvement in the war, where Zimbabwe has deployed more than 11,000 troops since August 1998.
The Harare government has in recent weeks said that the conflict is far too costly to sustain.
Harare on December 6 hosted a meeting at which all but one of the belligerent parties agreed to withdraw their forces by 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the front lines by the end of January, to allow the deployment of UN observers.
However the Ugandan-backed MLC refused to sign the deal because it said it did not do enough to foster political dialogue and amounted to the partition of the country.
The following week, the 15 members of the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution extending the mandate of a current small military observer force, known by its French acronym MONUC, by six months until June 15, 2001, and resolving to send hundreds more.
In October, the Council had extended MONUC's mandate for only two months, giving the six countries and the rebel groups involved in what diplomats have dubbed "Africa's first world war" a last chance to make peace.
The cease-fire accord hammered out in the Zambian capital Lusaka in July 1999 and signed by all parties by the end of the following month has been frequently violated, making a UN deployment across the vast nation impossible -- KINSHASA (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)