French square up to Rwanda rebels

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FRENCH troops in Rwanda were on course for a confrontation with the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) last night after President Francois Mitterrand ordered them to occupy a swath of Rwandan territory and defend it against the rapidly advancing rebel forces.

The decision, taken by the French President as he flew to meet President Nelson Mandela on a state visit to South Africa, breaks the terms of the United Nations mandate approved by a Security Council resolution two weeks ago. France intends to raise the matter at a Security Council meeting in New York today, according to a UN spokesman.

Yesterday, the rebels finally took the capital, Kigali, after more than 10 weeks of siege and hand-to- hand fighting. They also took Butare, the last important town not in their hands. Their rapid advance sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing westwards. Most of them are Hutus already displaced by war and fearful of reprisals by the Tutsis of the RPF. Even though RPF discipline towards civilians has held and there have been no reports that RPF troops have indulged in the sort of genocidal massacres carried out by Hutu extremists, the Hutu population still sees the RPF as a hostile invading force.

In Kigali, the RPF was given a jubilant welcome by surviving Tutsis, some 2,000 of whom have been huddled on church property constantly threatened by the murderous Hutu militias.

At Gikongoro, the French commander, Colonel Didier Thibaut, said he had been ordered to stop the rebels from capturing the town or going beyond it.

'If the RPF comes here and threatens the population we will open fire without any hesitation,' said Col Thibaut. 'We have the means to stop them.'

Despite warnings from many observers and UN forces already in the country, the UN Security Council was convinced by claims from Paris that the French mission was humanitarian and would not lead to confrontation with the rebel movement. Colonel Thibaut said the decision took effect immediately, and last night 300 Foreign Legionnaires in armoured cars were moving eastwards towards Gikongoro to reinforce their 100 men already there. Helicopters were flying in supplies.

Although a foreign ministry spokesman in Paris insisted that the 'humanitarian zone' was dictated by the deteriorating security situation, another French officer, Brigadier-General Jean-Claude Lafourcade, said: 'We will oppose any infiltration of armed elements into areas under our responsibility. We have the means and we will soon have more.'

The RPF is vigorously opposing the French move but it is not clear whether it will attack the French head-on. Its spokesman, Jacques Bihozagara, said yesterday: 'We are going to persist with our military objectives. This is outside their mandate, and I think this is dangerous . . . this concept has not been explored by the Security Council and we now think that, as usual, they are going to impose solutions and resolutions on the Security Council.'

The remains of the Rwandan army which fled from Kigali and Butare appears to be out of ammunition. Hundreds of them, exhausted and including many badly wounded, were camped on a football pitch in a village near Gikongoro. Their commander, General Leonidas Rusitira, said he did not know what the intentions of the French were.

But the French officers seemed to know. One said: 'The RPF is going to be very surprised. We won't call this Dien Bien Phu, we'll call it Austerlitz.'

Rebels take capital, page 12

(Photograph omitted)