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Zaire government, rebels open to team negotiation

Opening the way for talks with rebels who control one-third of Zaire, President Mobutu Sese Seko suggested Tuesday that Parliament create a seven-member negotiating team to hold talks with them.

The rebels had long insisted they would negotiate directly only with Mobutu but have softened their stance in recent days. A government source in South Africa, which has played a key role in trying to mediate an end to Zaire's insurgency, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that rebel leader Laurent Kabila has agreed to meet with a government delegation _ but only once and in a foreign country.

Mobutu, too, has said for some time that he wants negotiations with the rebels. The stumbling block has been whether negotiations would take place before or after a cease-fire.

That issue was not raised in Tuesday's announcement on national TV by presidential spokesman Kabuya Lumuna Sando.

"One is looking for a way to put an end to the hostilities and open negotiations," Kabuya said. He also said Mobutu would create a national council to advise the government on Zaire's transition to democracy. He gave no details on either proposal.

The announcements _ the first on Mobutu's behalf since he accepted the resignation of his embattled prime minister on Monday _ were a letdown for Zairians who had been expecting much more. Many anticipated Mobutu himself would appear and possibly appoint a new prime minister.

"I swear, it was a non-event, given the buildup of suspense and given the change that all of us were expecting," said Yoka Liye Mudaba, spokesman for the national electoral commission that had hoped to hold elections by the end of the year.

Mobutu and Kabila sent envoys to the west African country of Togo for a two-day summit of African leaders who also are trying to end the crisis. Neither Kabila nor Mobutu was expected to attend the 53-nation Organization of African Unity summit, which starts today.

Meanwhile, across the Zaire River in Brazzaville, Congo, U.S. troops were preparing for the possible evacuation of the 500 Americans living in Zaire.

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