British troops may be sent to Zaire

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British troops may join forces with the French to help stem the crisis in central Africa, diplomatic sources said last night.

The comments came after France proposed talks with the US, its European partners, and African countries on a plan to restore security in the area.

The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, said a possible international operation would be temporary and would allow up to 1 million mainly Hutu refugees to return to their camps and villagers to return home.

There were signs that action was at last on the cards after weeks of inaction. Belgium, the former colonial power,has called a meeting of EU ministers, and the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, called for a special UN Security Council meeting.

Both the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence said there had been no formal request from the UN for military support but Britain would be talking to France about its proposals for intervention before a summit in Bordeaux this week where John Major will meet President Jacques Chirac.

Although Britain and France disagree on the precise aims and nature of intervention, diplomatic sources said Britain might provide "tactical and logistic support".

They were watching French proposals for a multinational force to intervene in Zaire or on the Zaire-Rwanda border "very closely". In spite of the lessons of the 1994 disaster in Rwanda, when at least 800,000 people died, the UN has no rapid-reaction force of its own to intervene in situations like that now unfolding. Efforts to develop an African peace-keeping force have so far failed.

Yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, called for international efforts to create protected corridors to coax Rwandan refugees home.

"I'm desperate. I think the only way we can do this is to link up with a lot of governments and UN headquarters. It's a multi-dimensional operation we have to do," she said.

With the US paralysed by the presidential election, France and Britain are the only Western powers likely to be able to intervene. Both have supported creation of an African peace-keeping force but remain the only forces with the expertise and equipment to carry out such an operation.

The British favour securing a withdrawal route for refugees from Zaire into Rwanda. The French are thinking more of a two-way corridor, taking aid in as well as bringing out refugees, sick and wounded.

However, the two views are not necessarily incompatible.