Congolese cheer French troops arriving in Bunia

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The Independent Online

French special forces led a rapid reaction force that deployed in north-eastern Congo yesterday to halt the spate of ethnic massacres that led to 430 deaths last month. Hundreds of joyous Congolese cried "Liberated!" as officers from the advance force, which will eventually number 1,400, sped up Bunia's main street.

Surly fighters from the Hema militia controlling Bunia looked on. Five British officers also arrived to prepare for British deployment. The final UK troop numbers remain unconfirmed.

Hundreds of refugees poured out of the UN compound, where the terrified townspeople have been living under plastic shelters since last month's killing spree. In a week of fierce fighting Hema and Lendu militia left hundreds of bodies littering the streets, many in pieces.

"We are so relieved," said Floribert Kanda, a former gold mine manager who had been sheltering behind the UN razor-wire fence. "For once it seems the West is thinking of us after 10 years of abandonment."

Shortly after the dawn landing, a French special forces officer, who declined to be named, said: "It is quite a complicated situation. There are several factions but we have robust rules of engagement." In the overcrowded airport terminal behind him, hundreds of refugees were desperately awaiting a flight out of Bunia. They pressed against the windows to witness the long-awaited arrival.

"A three-month [deployment] is not enough," said Johanes Jalwiny, who had been camping in the building with his family for a month. "And they should not just stay in Bunia. Worse things are happening in the countryside."

The UN mission to Congo has been sharply criticised because 700 Uruguayan troops already stationed in Bunia failed to halt last month's massacres.

Their French commander, Colonel Daniel Vollot, who punched a cameraman who failed to obey an order to move back yesterday morning, defended their record "The conditions were extreme," he said. "We were not prepared to fight."

In contrast, the new force will have orders to open fire if needed to halt any fresh wave of violence. France is contributing half of 1,400 troops, and the remainder will come from Britain, Germany, Belgium and other European nations. Canada and South Africa are also contributing troops. The mission will end on 1 September. The UN Security Council approved the deployment, which will be backed by fighter jets based in the region.

The wider conflict in the DRC, now slowly subsiding, began in 1998, sucking in five other African nations when Rwanda and Uganda invaded to help rebels fight the government. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia intervened on the government's side.

An estimated 3 million people have died since 1998, mostly through disease and starvation caused by the conflict. With Bunia surrounded by warring ethnic militias, the UN mission will be a perilous one. But the film showing at the local video theatre did not bode well. Hundreds of youngsters sat transfixed before Terminal Mission, a violent Vietnam-era movie.

Loud cheers burst out as a soldier torched a straw hut and a burning man ran out. "We are definitely welcoming the French," shouted the theatre owner. "But this, I can't explain."