June 29, 1997

Brazzaville calm but no end to civil war in sight

By Roger Koy

BRAZZAVILLE, June 29 - Congo's warring rivals seemed as far apart as ever on Sunday despite a new ceasefire in a 25-day civil war that has swung between fierce fighting and relative calm.

The capital city Brazzaville has been devastated and hundreds of its residents killed in the conflict which neither side has a clear chance of winning.

Both President Pascal Lissouba and his adversary, former military leader Denis Sassou Nguesso, say they want the same thing -- free and fair presidential elections.

But Lissouba claims Sassou has staged a coup attempt, while Sassou says Lissouba provoked the crisis as a pretext for extending his term in office that was to have ended next month.

``Things have not advanced much,'' said one French official. ``The positions of both sides are still very far apart.''

France, the former colonial power, has kept its embassy open in Brazzaville even though all other missions fled.

Its ambassador Raymond Cesaire and other diplomats are effectively stuck in their offices in the disputed heart of the city.

Lissouba troops stopped him leaving for the relative safety of his residence, a wartime home of ``Free French'' leader General Charles de Gaulle, on Saturday.

Rival military chiefs agreed late on Friday to a new week-long ceasefire which, like a previous truce, has subdued but not stopped the fighting.

The ceasefire came after a deafening two-day artillery battle for the key airport, which was held by Lissouba. The battle seemed to make little difference to the frontlines.

The rival chiefs-of-staff also pledged support for a mediators' plan that called for peace, demilitarisation of the airport to allow a planned U.N.-led peacekeeping force to be deployed, and a unity government to get the elections back on track.

``The national mediation committee is elated that the parties in conflict have accepted its nine-point plan,'' said a spokesman for Bernard Kolelas, Brazzaville's neutral mayor who is trying to stop the war.

Togo and Senegal say they would join a U.N. force but none will be sent until the fighting subsides.

Lissouba controls the remnants of a fragmented national army as well as his own ``Zulu'' militia. They are pitted against Sassou's ``Cobras.''

Kolelas also has his ``Ninjas'' who were involved in ethnic clashes in 1993 that killed some 2,000 people.

A new breed of African leader, led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and now by ex-Zaire's Laurent Kabila, say Western-style party politics can be wrong for Africa and point to Congo as an example of why.

The charismatic Sassou ruled a Marxist one-party state for 13 years until yielding to free elections in 1992 that Lissouba, a former plant geneticist, won.

But the parties that sprung up with democracy have won support on largely ethnic lines, worsening divisions in the oil-producing country.