If the action goes ahead it will be the first UN-backed military intervention in Africa since the 1992 US invasion of Somalia went so disastrously wrong. The failure of that operation is in part responsible for the 10-week delay by the world's governments to send a force to Rwanda.
In a draft resolution before the Security Council, France has asked for a so-called Chapter Seven mandate, giving troops of any nation wishing to launch a military relief mission to Rwanda the fullest UN authority possible for the use of force. 'It means if anyone gets in the way of the French rescue operation they would be shot,' one Western diplomat said.
The new mandate would thus differ marginally from the council resolution passed last month to send an all-African force of 5,500 troops on a similar humanitarian mission. That authorisation was under Chapter Six of the UN Charter, which in theory authorises force only in self-defence. The key difference is in the timing: once the resolution is passed the French say their troops will be in Rwanda in a matter of hours.
A French battalion of 600 infantrymen and 400 support troops based in the Central African Republic would be sent to a jumping- off point in eastern Zaire, and a second 1,000-strong force would come from elsewhere.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front, which now controls much of the Central African country, vigorously opposes the plan and France has dispatched a senior diplomat to Uganda to persuade the RPF leadership that its intentions are purely humanitarian. The RPF recalls French support for the exclusively Hutu government in the past and says it would treat the French force as a foreign invasion.
At the UN last night, Faustin Twagiramunga - a moderate Hutu leader who has been designated as Rwanda's future prime minister - also opposed French intervention, saying it would not bode well for a peace pact.
The Europeans, including Britain, had no objections to authorising the French force, although some expressed concerns privately about the possible effectiveness of the mission and the casualty risk. France wanted another European nation to join the force, but there were no offers. Several countries, including Britain and the Netherlands, said they would send military equipment.
Other nations have been extremely reluctant to become involved in the conflict between the remnant of a government made up of members of the Hutu ethnic group and the RPF, which is largely Tutsi. Since the four-year- old war resumed in April, when President Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated, it is estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 people have been killed.
The only possible opposition to the French operation could have come from America, which has tried to ensure that any UN-approved mission to Rwanda has no possibility of being regarded as a failure, or of taking high casualties, as happened in the Somalia operation. Another such failure, the Clinton administration argues, would make it even more difficult to persuade a reluctant US Congress to pay America's debt to the UN and to keep funding peace- keeping operations. Last night the US endorsed France's moves to lead a multinational intervention force, but sidestepped support for a unilateral effort.
The failure of the UN, the US and the nine African countries offering troops to deliver a credible peace-keeping force for Rwanda in under three months has led the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to speak in favour of the French mission.
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