Rapturous welcome home for Zairean president


ZAIRE's veteran president, Mr Mobutu Sese Seko, returned home yesterday to a rapturous welcome after four months in Europe where he had surgery for prostate cancer.

Up to 20,000 people gathered at the international airport in the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome home the man whose supporters describe him as the one symbol of unity in the vast and anarchic Central African nation gripped by a revolt in the east. Many thousands more lined the 15 km from the capital to the airport.

Witnesses said Mr Mobutu (66) smiled broadly as he walked down the steps from the aircraft with his wife as cheering, drumming, music and chanting resounded around the airport. Wearing his trademark leopardskin hat, he walked unaided and easily, carrying, as always, a carved walking stick. Tight security surrounded the homecoming with snipers on rooftops.

The crowds, some of them wearing imitation leopardskin hats, surged forward as the plane taxied to a halt. Mr Mobutu was handed a huge bouquet of flowers, shook hands all round and joined in singing the national anthem. The crowd erupted as he raised his arms in acknowledgment.

In a speech at the airport, Mr Mobutu vowed to resurrect his war-torn and economically crippled country.

He said he had returned from Europe to take personal charge of the crisis in eastern Zaire, where mainly Tutsi rebels have humiliated government forces and seized a large part of the territory.

Mr Mobutu said the enemies of Zaire "chose the moment when it was racked with illness to stab it in the back. Against the advice of my doctors, I decided to interrupt my convalescence - to take personal charge of the situation which is threatening the territorial integrity of Zaire," he added.

"I have never retreated in the past and I will not retreat," he said. "I know your expectations and your hopes and I will try to fulfil them quickly and positively.

However, the president did not announce any immediate measures to tackle the military crisis in the east. Although he did not name Zaire's "enemies," he was clearly referring to Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the rebels. The three countries deny the charge.

Since October, the rebels have seized a large swathe of territory on the borders with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, including the fertile provinces of North and South Kivu. The fighting sparked the flight of an estimated 1.2 million Rwandan Hutu refugees.

He said Zaire had been "assailed by those whom we welcomed", but he urged people not to descend into "blind xenophobia".

Mr Mobutu has dominated the life of the nation since seizing power in 1965. He bowed to foreign and domestic pressure for democratic reforms in 1990 but elections have yet to be held. He has announced his intention to stand for elected office when multi-party elections finally take place. Under the transitional constitution, this must be before July 1997.