France steps up fight against rebels in Africa

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The Independent Online
The simmering debate about French military involvement in central Africa boiled up with a vengeance yesterday after French troops were said to have followed up a massive reprisal operation in the Central African Republic with an airlift of more than 1,000 troops into northern Zaire. The purpose of the airlift was said to be to help the Zairean army against rebel forces occupying the north and east of the country.

As government officials in Paris furiously denied all involvement in Zaire but defended Sunday's operation in the Central African Republic, the leader of the Socialist opposition, Lionel Jospin, questioned the accountability of those running France's military operations in Africa. Meanwhile, the usually pro-govern- ment newspaper, Le Figaro, published a critical editorial denouncing the rationale behind France's military presence in Africa as rooted in the past.

Early yesterday morning, rebel leaders in the town of Goma in western Zaire reported the arrival of a large contingent of French troops in the area of Kisangani in northern Zaire. Like Goma, Kisangani is currently held by rebels, following the advances they made during the refugee crisis on the Zaire-Rwanda border last year.

The reports said another 2-3,000 foreign troops were also in the region, mostly mercenaries from Angola and South Africa. The French troops were said to have up to four Antonov military transport aircraft, 14 tanks, three helicopters and three fighter planes.

The reports were vehemently denied by the French defence ministry - which said there were only five French gendarmes in the whole of Zaire and the military attache.

Similar denials followed from the foreign ministry. The Zairean military attache in Paris, Colonel Eyongo, said that "anyone who makes these allegations must be a little mad". The South African organisation named by rebels in Goma as having sent the mercenaries - Executive Outcomes - also denied involvement.

The proximity of Kisangani to Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, where French reinforcements had recently arrived to carry out Sunday's reprisal operation, how- ever, suggested both how such an operation could have been mounted and how the Zairean rebels might have believed it possible.

The new head of the Zairean army, appointed after the return from France of President Mobutu two weeks ago, had sworn to recover rebel-held regions. France, moreover, is licking its diplomatic wounds after failing to muster an international force to mount a human-itarian operation in eastern Zaire last November. After this defeat, President Jacques Chirac said that the days of French intervention in Africa were over.

To critics, however, the military operation mounted by French troops in Bangui on Sunday, looked exactly like old-style French colonial intervention.

According to Le Figaro, it was coordinated closely with the Elysee. It may have even been intended partly to counter the growing image of French impotence in its former African fiefdoms.