Armed Hutus cheer French at the border

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GANGS of killers were preparing to welcome French troops as saviours as the first contingents entered Rwanda yesterday. Aid workers said they may be forced to stop work and pull out because of the French intervention.

The reception of the French at the border illustrated the fears that many have expressed that their intervention will not be interpreted as impartial. At the border between Bukavu and Cyangugu, eyewitnesses said that crowds of young men waving French and Rwandan flags, as well as spears and machetes, lined the road from the border waiting to cheer the French troops.

James Fennell, of Care, told the Independent by telephone from Bukavu in eastern Zaire that he saw some 25 French paratroopers take over a disused hangar at a nearby airfield yesterday. 'Four officers accompanied by Zairean officials went to the border. They didn't cross but there were huge chalk slogans on the road across the border welcoming the French troops and hundreds of young guys with machetes and spears. It was clearly orchestrated and these were obviously the Interahamwe,' he said.

Radio Milles Collines, the radio station which has urged Hutu extremist gangs to kill Tutsis, welcomed the French intervention and said the French had come to fight on their side and had brought new weapons.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel movement which controls more than half the country, continued to oppose the intervention. 'We have no doubt whatsoever that their intentions are far from being humanitarian,' said Theogene Rudasingwa, secretary- general of the RPF. Another leader said they would not seek out French troops, but would 'treat them as invaders' if they did make contact. 'Combat is possible' because France 'is on the side of the fascists,' he said.

Francois Leotard, the French Defence Minister, stressed that the French plan was purely humanitarian. 'We want to engage ourselves as little as possible in Rwandan territory and in no way do we want to take a role in the conflict,' he said.

But the UN force already under heavy fire in Kigali is deeply worried by the intervention. News agency reporters with them said they shook their heads and cursed as they heard the UN Security Council decision to approve the French plan on Wednesday night. UN officials said they were prepared to evacuate all the peace- keepers and nearly 40 soldiers from Francophone African countries left after the rebels demanded their removal. Six French journalists have also been expelled from RPF territory.

Aid agencies may be forced to pull out. According to all the main aid agencies working in Rwanda the arrival of French troops in western Rwanda has made their work more dangerous and many of them are suspicious of French motives. 'It would be tragic if the only practical result of this operation is that the aid workers are forced to pull out,' said one aid agency chief.

Oxfam openly regretted the Security Council decision, asking how the French force could be mobilised in hours when Western governments had made no offers of logistical support to the UN for a month after the decision was taken to send a UN force to Rwanda. 'Even if well-intentioned it is not perceived as impartial,' said Oxfam.

Father Jack Finucane, of the Irish aid agency, Concern, said that he was apprehensive about the French intervention because 'it will be perceived as a French invasion not as a humanitarian venture. In Somalia the American intervention changed the situation and made humanitarian work much more difficult.'

The most vulnerable agency in Rwanda is Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has several autonomous national branches but is perceived as French and having close links with the French government. MSF France has a team working in the hospital on the government side in Kigali but anyone carrying the distinctive MSF flag is now vulnerable. MSF France has taken the view that the intervention is positive but it would have preferred France not to be involved.

Alain Destexhe, secretary-general of MSF International, said the French plan was viewed with mixed feelings. 'It's a dilemma,' he said. 'At least some action is being taken and it is what we have called for. But it may not be the right kind of action.'

Initially, however, the French troops can come to the aid of about 8,000 Tutsis who have been hiding in a stadium at Cyangugu in south-west Rwanda. They have recently been moved to a camp called Nyarushishi on a hill but are described as 'very vulnerable' to attacks by Interahamwe. The Red Cross brings in food every day but about 12 people are dying each day from virulent form of dysentery, a Red Cross spokesman said. Nearby is a camp of about 1,500 Hutu refugees; there may be other small groups of vulnerable people scattered in surrounding areas.

The Red Cross is also organising overflights of south-east Rwanda to search for up to 1 million people who seem to have disappeared after leaving camps around Kigali and Gitarama in recent weeks.

In the north-east around Ruhengeri there are a further 250,000 displaced people, many of them Tutsis. But the RPF is surrounding the town and any attempt to rescue them by the French may trigger conflict with the RPF.

This is the key question about the intervention. Can the French intervene to protect vulnerable troops without making contact with the RPF or affecting the course of the war? And beneath this question is the deeper question asked by all aid agencies operating in Rwanda: What is the French motive in coming to Rwanda now?

(Photograph and map omitted)