The Congo: Abduction in the Air

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Whether by design or accident, the timing of the snatch heightened the drama. It came on the seventh anniversary of the Congo's independence from Belgium. Rumors raced through Kinshasa that the Algerians were going to present Tshombe to them as an anniversary gift, and Mobutu sent a plane to Algiers to pick him up. But the Algerian regime of Colonel Houari Boumediene could not decide what to do.

According to international practice, Algeria should not surrender Tshombe to Mobutu inasmuch as he was convicted on political, not criminal, charges. Yet Boumediene is eager to improve his image in Black Africa, whose leaders almost all revile Tshombe as a "Black Judas" for protecting Belgian financial interests in the Congo and using white mercenaries to keep himself in power. The official Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid proposed establishing an "African Nürnberg" to try Tshombe.

"International Mafia." Sensing the urgency of the situation, Tshombe's followers in the east Congo apparently hoped to strike down Mobutu before he could get his hands on Tshombe. In Kisangani, formerly Stanleyville, the French colonel who commands a 200-man white mercenary force that normally supports Mobutu suddenly switched sides and seized the city. Within hours, 200 additional mercenaries landed in Kisangani, probably from airports in Portuguese Angola. In the Congo border city of Bukuva, a force of European residents under the command of a rich Belgian planter named Joseph Schramm led remnants of Tshombe's old Katanga constabulary in attacks on the local army garrison.

Reacting with hysteria, Mobutu ordered a full-scale mobilization of Congolese men and women between the ages of 18 and 25, slapped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on all Europeans in the Congo, and appealed to the U.N. Security Council for protection against an "international Mafia" that he said aimed at his overthrow. At week's end, between bursts of martial music, the Kinshasa radio claimed that forces loyal to Mobutu had recaptured Kisangani and Bukuva. Europeans fleeing from Bukuva into neighboring Rwanda told of looting and grisly retaliations against the remaining whites by Mobutu's troops. A planeload of bruised and battered mercenaries landed in Rhodesia.

If Mobutu succeeds in getting Tshombe, he will then have to find a new scapegoat for the Congo's troubles. Despite his talk about economic reform, he has so far failed to rein in the Congo's debilitating inflation or spur industrial growth. What he has done, however, is to abolish all opposition political parties, disband Parliament, and have a new constitution written to legitimatize his one-man rule. His general explanation for his policies: the Congolese need discipline.

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