CHRIS MCGREAL in Kinshasa
PRESIDENT Mobutu Sese Seko flew out of Kinshasa yesterday, leaving behind a city torn between celebrating what most people hope is his permanent departure and fear at the prospect of his promised return.
Mr Mobutu took his personal Boeing 727 to Gabon, ostensibly for a summit of regional Francophone leaders who have remained sympathetic to the beleaguered Zairean president throughout the civil war.
The few Kinshasans who took notice of Mr Mobutu's motorcade of stretch limousines, jeeps bristling with weapons and motorbike outriders sweeping through the city, watched silently as it flashed by. And not many in the capital, facing a rebel takeover within days, were willing to declare Mr Mobutu's reign definitively over.
The large numbers of his family, including his wife, Bobi Ladawa, and high ranking aides travelling with the Zairean leader inevitably added to the speculation that he is gone for good. But Mr Mobutu's confidants continued to insist he will return, and hinted that he had gone to Gabon to whip up military support for a counteroffensive against Laurent Kabila's rebels.
Government forces were making what appeared a last ditch attempt to stall if not halt the rebel advance on Kinshasa. Heavy fighting was reported around the town of Kikwit, 125 miles east of the capital.
Residents of villages in the area said that the numbers of government troops had risen sharply in recent days, including Portuguese speaking men presumed to be members of Angola's Unita rebel army which has long and close ties to Mr Mobutu.
But Mr Kabila's rebels have also been sighted much closer to the south of Kinshasa.
Among those who took off with Mr Mobutu were members of his minority Ngbandi peoples who have grown rich on his coattails. General Kpama Baramoto, the Zairean president's brother-in-law and former army chief of staff, bolted for South Africa. The general, who was fired by Mr Mobutu for incompetence in the face of persistent rebel victories, has been a target of military reprisals ever since he was sacked earlier this year.
Several of former prime minister Kengo wa Dondo's ministers have also made a break.
But still others are staying in the hope of finding a role with the new order. One of Mr Mobutu's most prominent mouthpieces, the mining minister, Banza Mukalay Nsungu, has decamped to a plush Kinshasa hotel where he has told friends he intends to remain until the rebels take over. Mr Banza is not alone in believing that Mr Kabila will find him invaluable.
Most of those left behind have less grand expectations.
A young sergeant in the army security division, Brejnev Manzembe, is typical of the many soldiers who have no desire to fight.
"We're sure the rebels will come. My father is a general. Even he is sure of that. I can fight but I don't want to because I would be fighting against change and we all want change. When the war is over I will join the other side," he said.
Still, officials and soldiers are making a last grab for cash. Lorries driving from the port city of Matadi, one of the few roads to the capital still open, say the price of crossing through roadblocks has risen dramatically amid an array of new "taxes" .
Diplomats continue to cling to the hope of a negotiated settlement which would ease Mr Mobutu from power and forestall the need for a rebel assault on the capital.
But even they could not agree on whether Mr Mobutu will return. The Americans said he will not. South Africa's deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, said he believed Mr Mobutu will be back in Zaire on Friday.
After the failure at the weekend of Washington's and Pretoria's joint attempt to bring about the Zairean leader's resignation, both sides are making new efforts.
Despite the evidence of continuing fighting, Mr Mbeki said he had spoken to Mr Kabila and reminded him of the rebels pledge to stall their advance on Kinshasa while a negotiated end to the war is a possibility.
"He told me that he had ordered his men to stop advancing on all fronts and gave me his assurance that they were not moving forward," Mr Mbeki said.