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Tuesday, July 20, 1999 Published at 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK

World: Africa

Rumour and gossip at Congo's peace talks

Lusaka: "Nothing to distract the attention"

By Ishbel Matheson in Lusaka

"Your guess is as good as mine," said the Ugandan defence minister, Steven Kuvuna, in answer to my query about whether the rebels were planning to turn up in Lusaka.

What time were ministers due to meet? I asked the Congolese foreign minister, Abdoullaye Yerodia. "I have no idea", he said plaintively' "I thought you might know."

[ image:  ]
Even the Zambian Ministry of Foreign Affairs drew a blank.

" These fellows have gone to ground", said the perplexed official, referring to his bosses who were running the show. "We can't get any information out of them".

During the past three weeks, journalists, ministers and officials have often found themselves in the same boat, scrabbling around trying to find out what progress is really being made in the Lusaka peace accord.

The Zambian government has taken its role as neutral mediator very seriously. Official information is scarce. Indeed, apart from the time-honoured phrase, "consultations are continuing" it is practically non-existent.

No point in shopping

However, there is plenty of rumour, counter-rumour and gossip. To catch up with the latest, journalists haunt the lobbies of Lusaka's major hotels. If the participants are not in official meetings, they are invariably in their hotel rooms, flipping TV channels or simply working their way through the room service menu.

There are few attractions in the Zambian capital, to lure them away from the business in hand. As one veteran of the international conference circuit put it rather cruelly: "If the talks were held in Geneva, the whole process would be a flop because everybody would go shopping. But in Lusaka, there is nothing to distract the attention."

In fact, the small, placid Zambian capital has proved a surprisingly effective venue for peace talks. There are two luxury hotels in town where all the delegates are accommodated, and this has led to some curious juxtapositions.

Those who are foes on the battlefield cannot avoid meeting each other in the breakfast-room. Far away from the climate of hostility and suspicion in their homelands, sworn enemies have been spotted chatting by the swimming pool, or sharing a bottle of wine over dinner.

Diplomats here believe the value of this bonhomie should not be underestimated. It gives the participants an additional incentive to overcome the formidable political obstacles that remain in the path of a successful peace deal in Congo.

My room's bigger than yours

[ image: Wamba dia Wamba: his room is not very big]
Wamba dia Wamba: his room is not very big
The informal atmosphere has also given journalists the chance to study the main players at close-quarters.

Their vanities, obsessions and eccentricities have been on display for all to see. The size and quality of hotel rooms were, for example, a major issue for some in the rebel delegations.

Professor Ernest Wamba Dia Wamba, the head of one of the Rally for Congolese Democracy factions, had a rather small room on the seventh floor. "But when you come to Lusaka," one member of a rival rebel delegation assured his leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, by telephone "You'll get a much bigger room. No problem"

When we later visited Mr Bemba, he did indeed have a big suite of rooms. With a 24-hour sports channel playing on the wide-screen television, bowls of fresh fruit on the table, and a beautiful wife who had just flown in from Brussels, he seemed more like a corporate executive than a rebel leader.

But appearances can be deceptive. Jean-Pierre Bemba left Lusaka, where he was talking peace, to continue prosecuting the war in Congo. The gentle, scholarly Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba has proved just as stubborn as any other participant when it comes to clinging onto power. The flamboyant, comical Congelese foreign minister Abdoullaye Yerodia is no fool when it comes to fighting for his government's best interests.

Journalists who have been covering these talks from the beginning, have learnt never to underestimate the guile of the participants, and never to predict the outcome, in a process that continues to defy expectations.

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