British troops set for Zaire mission

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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 one million mainly Hutu refugees to return to their camps and villagers go home.

There were signs that action was at last on the cards. 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 pro- posals 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 that 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 still has no rapid-reaction force to intervene in situations like that now unfolding in Zaire. Efforts to develop an African peace-keeping force have failed.

Yesterday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, called for international efforts to create protected corridors in order to encourage Rwandan refugees to go home. "I'm desperate. The only way we can do this is to link up with a lot of governments and UN headquarters," she said. With the US paralysed by the presidential election, France and Britain are the only Western powers ready to intervene.

The British favour securing a withdrawal route for refugees from Zaire into Rwanda. The French are thinking more in terms 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.

The French specifically want the international conference to discuss reinforcement of security "north and south of Kivu" in eastern Zaire. Mr de Charette said any operation would entail the dispatch of troops.

The proposal appeared to be a response to pressure from groups in France that Paris should not stand by as a region closely associated with French influence descended into chaos.

Mr de Charette made clear that in its urgency and the specific nature of the agenda, the meeting superseded, but did not replace, the conference on the region proposed last week by Mr Chirac.

But it also suggested an effort by France not to repeat past errors. Insistence that as many countries as possible should take part suggested concern that it should not seem to be acting unilaterally or trying to protect its own interests.

Since the crisis escalated last week, France has been cautious in its official statements. Partly, it may have been trying to lay to rest the mixed diplomatic reaction to Mr Chirac's recent outbursts in Israel. Mostly, however, French reticence is explained by its experience two years ago and the shadow of Operation Turquoise. This was a military and aid operation, launched under French auspices from Zaire, to support Hutu rebels in Rwanda. Widely seen as having precipitated the mass killing of Tutsis and set off the refugee crisis which now threatens to explode, it earned France international opprobrium.

This time, France has been distinguished by reluctance to do or say anything until someone else has given a lead, and by its determination that any action should be organised and conducted with others.

The specific nature of the French proposal - to discuss "enforcing security to the north and south of Kivu on a temporary basis by appropriate means" - is also significant.

The focus on this region of Zaire, where the border has been breached, implies France is keen to prevent any redrawing of the frontier - a solution favoured by some in Rwanda.