French press on with Rwanda mission: Doubts about sending troops, such as the risk to aid workers, have been dismissed in a headlong rush to 'do something', writes Richard Dowden, Africa Editor

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH plan to intervene in Rwanda was gathering momentum yesterday with the unstoppable force of a heavily armed man intent on doing good. France may even go ahead without the blessing of the United Nations, said a source close to government in Paris yesterday. Questions about the wisdom of the plan, such as its effect on the UN force already under fire in Kigali, the danger to aid workers in Rwanda and the opposition of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), were swept aside by the moral imperative that 'something must be done'.

'We just want to gesticulate,' said one source in Paris. 'We said nothing during the massacres and we voted for the UN force in Rwanda to be reduced when the killings started but now the killing is mostly over, we suddenly find a burning desire to save lives.'

The main objection to the plan is that it is vigorously opposed by the RPF, which is advancing west across the country. The movement has said it would regard French intervention as hostile and will fight it.

A former French ambassador, Jean-Michel Marlaud, has been dispatched to Uganda to persuade the RPF that French intentions are purely humanitarian but RPF sources said he was regarded as close to the former Rwandan regime. The French force of 2,000, operated as an armoured column supported by helicopter gunships, would no doubt halt the RPF advance, but in the steep, thickly covered hills they would find themselves fighting a bush war against highly motivated opponents who know the terrain better than they do.

Other governments were also questioning the French plan yesterday but were unwilling to oppose it for fear of being seen to oppose humanitarian intervention. Their reservations are deep-seated.

One Western diplomat asked why the French did not offer logistical support to the existing UN plan and fly in troops already offered to the organisation and accepted by it. Another asked what effect the arrival of French troops in the teeth of RPF opposition would have on the existing UN force, which is already vulnerable to attack from both sides.

Rwanda-watchers pointed out that if French troops arrive in hard-pressed Hutu areas, they will be seen as giving solace to the hardline Hutu elements, who may start another killing- spree. When they arrive in Tutsi areas they will be regarded as enemies.

But the main question, not voiced publicly by diplomats, is what prompted French urgency 10 weeks after the massacres started. Some suggest President Francois Mitterrand is worried that a French- speaking country will come under the rule of English- speakers. RPF leaders, who mostly grew up in exile in Uganda, do not speak French.

France supported President Juvenal Habyarimana's one-party Hutu state for 20 years and came to his assistance with troops when the RPF threatened to overrun the country in 1990 and last year. France, or at least Mr Mitterrand, is also anxious to restore French credibility in Africa after the decline of the CFA, the African franc, supported by the French treasury, which was devalued by 50 per cent in January. It was one of the closest links between France and its former African territories. France has often used military force to demonstrate its political power in Africa.

But the French proposal has at least forced an answer to the question of what happened to UN Security Council Resolution 925, adopted on 8 June and which authorised deployment of 5,500 UN troops to Rwanda. In a letter to the president of the Security Council on Sunday, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General, said the UN force for Rwanda 'may not be in a position, for about three months, to fully undertake the tasks entrusted to it'. He has therefore commended the French plan to the Security Council.

The reasons for the snail- like progress of international intervention in Rwanda is illustrative of the problem of deploying a UN force rapidly. One reason is the alleged lack equipment for African forces offering to go to Rwanda. The other is the reluctance of the US to provide it quickly and transport it to Rwanda. Nine African countries have put forward offers of troops but all of them except Ethiopia included conditions. According to a UN diplomat, one African country offered 800 infantrymen on condition that they were supplied with 1,000 rifles. Their main demand is for armoured vehicles and these have been offered by South Africa and the US.

The US offer turned out to be a proposal to sell 50 M-113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) deployed with American forces in Germany. After the Somalia debacle the White House has promised no more peace-keeping involvement unless there is a detailed budget, a plan and a withdrawal date. So the US, the only country now able to move large numbers of men and equipment rapidly round the globe, is hamstrung by its domestic politics.

The UN decided to hire the American APCs instead, but the rate was described by one UN official as exorbitant. A US official said: 'Toward the end of Somalia, we got the impression the United Nations was trying to get the stuff on the cheap. So when it came to the APCs in Rwanda we've tried to keep their feet to the fire.'

Last week the Pentagon raised its estimate by 50 per cent and insisted that the UN also paid to return the vehicles to Germany, pushing the loan cost to dollars 4m ( pounds 2.6m) and the transport cost to dollars 11m. The UN, short of dollars 2bn in unpaid dues from the US, objected and proposed that the vehicles be returned by ship. This was agreed and the total cost, after two weeks of wrangling, is now agreed at dollars 10m.

The five-day airlift of the APCs to Entebbe, Uganda, is to begin on Friday, using planes that will take five at a time. Ghanaian troops will join them and learn to use them before driving them into Rwanda.

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