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Butchery on Congo streets

France yesterday sent tanks to reinforce its 1,250-strong force in Congo-Brazzaville amid reports of "butchery" on the streets of the capital.

The tanks will give extra firepower and protection to French troops protecting and evacuating foreign nationals. France is also concerned about the effect of the disorder in its formercolony on its influence in central Africa, and may be reinforcing its garrison to try to stabilise the country, where France has important interests.

Yesterday the French reinforcement was seen as a "veiled warning" that France might intervene if the situation is not resolved, although a French Ministry of Defence spokesman said its mission was to protect foreign nationals and to guard the airport.

One evacuee told French radio that soldiers on the spot had put the death toll as high as 10,000. But senior military officers in Paris dismissed the figures. "We don't know how many have been killed. Because much of Brazzaville is made up of shanty towns where people live tightly packed, it is possible some rounds from multiple rocket launchers could have caused heavy casualties in places. There could be 200 dead or 1,000 dead in the very worst case scenario, but we don't know," a senior officer in Paris said.

Yesterday, the French had evacuated nearly 3,000 foreign nationals from Brazzaville airport. They included 1,300 French and some Britons, among them the honorary consul in Brazzaville, Dominic Picard. They were flown to neighbouring Gabon.

Evacuees who arrived in Paris yesterday spoke of "butchery". Some said they had barricaded themselves in their homes but were increasingly threatened by armed looters, including uniformed members of the government forces. "In the end we became afraid that after looting they would start raping our wives and children so we decided to pull out," one man told French television.

The fighting in Congo-Brazzaville began last week when government soldiers loyal to President Pascal Lissouba, enforcing a ban on private armies, surrounded the house of the former president, Sassou Nguesso.

The French are worried about a possible domino effect among the francophone states of Africa, following events in Rwanda and Zaire. The victory of the English-speaking Tutsis over the French-speaking Hutus in Rwanda was the first stage in what looks like a collapse of French influence.

During his election campaign the new French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, said the fall of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko to Laurent Kabila and his anglophone Tutsi rebels marked "a failure of France's African policy". Le Figaro said this week: "Unlike Congo [Zaire], where France had few economic interests, Congo [-Brazzaville] is at the heart of our presence in Africa."