French seeking summit on Zaire

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In its first official response to the crisis in central Africa, France yesterday proposed an emergency international conference to discuss reinforcement of security "north and south of Kivu" in eastern Zaire.

The Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, said France wanted all its European and African "partners" to be represented, and the US and Canada. Any operation agreed would entail the dispatch of troops.

The proposal appeared to be a response to pressure from groups in France, including charities like Medecins sans Frontieres, 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Mr de Charette made clear that in its urgency and the specific nature of the agenda, the meeting superseded, but did not replace, the conference on the region proposed last week by President Jacques Chirac.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 in a region where Francophone and Anglophone interests have long been in competition.

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 - and pre-empt a return to power by the more Anglophone-inclined Tutsis.

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.

Media comment has referred in breast-beating fashion to the events of two years ago as a foreign-policy error that did lasting damage.

And when the death of Jean Bedel Bokassa, former ruler of the Central African Republic, was announced this morning, it was this discredited relic of French Africa policy, and not the emergency on the Rwanda-Zaire border, that led national news bulletins.

France's decision to involve the US and Canada also suggests a desire to bury the hatchet with Washington over Africa policy. Last month France and the US engaged in sniping during an Africa tour by the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. France took umbrage at criticism by him of countries that saw themselves as having "reserved zones" in the continent, and the US objected to the Secretary of State's tour, his first in four years, being seen by France as an election ploy.

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.

Partly, it marks a recognition that order has to be brought to the area, if necessary by force, before there is any chance of a humanitarian aid operation being effective.

The focus on this region of Zaire, where the border has been breached, also implies France is keen to prevent any redrawing of the frontier - a solution favoured by some in Rwanda - and so to defend not only Zaire's territorial integrity but also the dignity of its current (and absent) leader, President Mobutu Sese Seko. Until yesterday he was in Switzerland, where he was variously reported to be living it up at Lausanne nightspots or to be at death's door from prostate cancer that had spread.

Mr Mobutu, persona non grata in France since the massacres in Rwanda two years ago, made a "private" visit to Paris in April and met Mr Chirac. His arrival late yesterday on the Cote d'Azur, where he has a villa, came amid concern about the effect of his lengthy absence on the stability of Zaire but it also suggested that some deal had been done with France, although there was no hint of what it might be.