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Arms Embargo, Food Aid Could Stay Zaire's Crisis

Mobuto dictatorship, former bulwark for the US against Soviet influence, is now leading Zaire into civil war

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A YEAR ago in February, the United States State Department sent a confidential cable from its embassy in Zaire warning that the deteriorating economic and political crisis could result in a ``Somalia and Liberia rolled into one, with vast potential for immense refugee flows, regional destabilization and humanitarian disaster.'' Since US Ambassador to Zaire Melissa Wells wrote those words, the situation has grown worse. If the US does not do something soon, the heart of Africa will be ripped open by a civil war that could eclipse the carnage in Sarajevo.

During the cold war, Zaire's dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko, made himself useful by allowing Zaire to serve as a weapons conduit for rebels fighting the neighboring Cuban-backed government in Angola. Over the last 20 years, the US has provided more than $1 billion in aid to Zaire in an effort to bolster Mr. Mobutu as a bulwark against Soviet influence in Africa.

Using Western aid and a long-used practice of co-opting prominent opposition leaders with short appointments as ``prime minister,'' Mobutu maintained his dictatorship for almost 30 years. In the process, he became one of the world's richest men.

This changed in 1991, when Mobutu's bankrupt Army joined with rioters to loot the capital, Kinshasa. Mobutu agreed to set up a new government through a ``High Council of the Republic,'' led by his rival, Etienne Tshisekedi. Once calm returned to the capital, Mobutu fired Mr. Tshisekedi and drove his ministers from office.

In its latest annual report, Human Rights Watch decried the fighting between Mobutu's security forces and Tshisekedi's supporters. Efforts to reach a negotiated settlement by Roman Catholic Archbisop Laurent Monsengwo have failed to end the bloodshed.

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