Mobutu Ousts Opposition Premier

KINSHASA, Zaire -- President Mobutu Sese Seko fired the new prime minister Wednesday and put an army general in charge of the government as he sought to reassert control over his crumbling country.

Defense Ministry spokesman Leon Kalima announced the move after a morning of fierce clashes between soldiers and thousands of protesters supporting Etienne Tshisekedi, an opposition activist who was appointed prime minister one week ago.

At the same time, rebels were reported to have broken past Zairean troops and entered the country's second-largest city, Lubumbashi. A car rental agent in the city, Thierry Mwengwe, said gun battles were going on between loyalist troops and fighters from Laurent Desire Kabila's rebel army, which has seized one-third of the country since September.

The United States increased pressure for Mobutu to step down Tuesday, saying that any negotiated solution to Zaire's civil war would have to include plans for an interim transitional government.

"That clearly reflects our view that Mobutuism is about to become a creature of history," said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.

The ouster of Tshisekedi and his replacement with a military general were further setbacks to Zaire's long-stalled democratic reforms.

Tshisekedi had angered much of the parliament by scrapping the government, annulling the constitution, and offering Cabinet posts to rebel representatives.

The standoff culminated Wednesday when Tshisekedi was bundled into a car while leading a march to the the prime minister's office.

"Mr. Tshisekedi was brought to his home for his own safety," the Defense Ministry said. "He is not under house arrest."

The appointment of General Likulia Bolongo, who had been army chief of staff and defense minister, to head the government indicated the severity of the crackdown announced by Mobutu on Tuesday night, when he proclaimed a state of emergency across the country in the face of rebel advances toward the capital.

Rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila claimed Tuesday his troops were just 260 kilometers northeast of the capital, near the city of Bandundu, and would press onto Kinshasa to oust Mobutu.