Mitterrand flies out to Vietnam

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The Independent Online
PARIS - President Francois Mitterrand left yesterday on the first visit to Vietnam by a Western head of state since the Communist victory over the United States in 1975, writes Julian Nundy.

The high-point of the trip is a planned visit to Dien Bien Phu, where the Communist Viet Minh besieged more than 14,000 French soldiers for nearly two months in 1954. The French defeat there hastened recognition of Vietnamese independence and the partition of the country into the Communist north and capitalist south later that year.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu, where more than 3,000 French soldiers died and 8,000 were taken prisoner, is - despite the defeat - one of the great moments of French military history. Three times as many Vietnamese perished in the battle.

Known as the 'basin' because the strategic junction was in a hollow, which made it an easy target for Viet Minh artillery, it was the scene of exceptional bravery. To reinforce the garrison, 4,277 volunteers parachuted from planes that had to fly through heavy anti-aircraft fire; 800 of them had never jumped before.

Pierre Schoendorffer, a film director who was a cameraman in the town during the siege and whose film, Dien Bien Phu, was released last year, is a member of Mr Mitterrand's party. He was taken prisoner by the Viet Minh. Other veterans of the battle refused an invitation to accompany the President because they blame the precursors of Mr Mitterrand's Socialists for the defeat.

Before leaving for Hanoi, Mr Mitterrand told Le Monde that the aim of his visit was 'to close a painful chapter' in France's relations with its former colony.

Today, some 35,000 French troops are posted abroad, some in Cambodia, which Mr Mitterrand will visit on Thursday, while others are in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia as part of UN forces. Others are in established French bases in Africa.

Mr Mitterrand told Le Monde just before his departure that France would not commence any military operations in the former Yugoslavia. Last month, Roland Dumas, the Foreign Minister, in a remark which was quickly disavowed by other members of the government, said that France might try to liberate Serbian detention camps in Bosnia.

Saying that he backed the UN- sponsored Vance-Owen peace plan, Mr Mitterrand said 'France will not begin military operations. It will apply the decisions of the Security Council.' The aircraft carrier Clemenceau, which arrived in the Adriatic last week, was only there 'to protect our soldiers who are members of the UN forces', he added.

(Photograph omitted)