French troops dig in as Rwanda role draws fire

GOMA, Zaire (Reuter) - Heavily-armed French troops were dug in around the south-western town of Gikongoro yesterday, where they were ordered on Monday to halt the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front's westward advance.

Gikongoro is teeming with government soldiers from Kigali and Butare whom the RPF has said it will hunt down. The rebels have accused the French of intervening to protect the government from defeat. The French military spokesman, Colonel Didier Bollelli, said the RPF made a slight advance towards Gikongoro on Tuesday and reiterated that French troops there would protect civilians.

'It was a minimal advance. It is nothing to worry us so far,' he told reporters at the main French base in Goma, in eastern Zaire. He said French troops had found three new camps packed with a total of 170,000 displaced people in the Gikongoro area, bringing the refugee population of the region to 300,000.

Most refugees, he said, were trying to flee to neighbouring Burundi and he appealed to aid agencies for swift medical help for a camp which had swollen from 5,000 last week to 100,000.

The commander of the UN peace-keeping force in Rwanda arrived in Zaire yesterday for talks with his French opposite number and the head of the beleaguered Rwandan government army.

Major-General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the Kigali-based UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), said he would talk to the chief of France's Operation Turquoise, Brigadier-General Jean-Claude Lafourcade, at his base in Goma.

The Canadian commander then planned to cross the border to the neighbouring western Rwandan town of Gisenyi for a meeting with Major-General Augustine Bizimungu, the Rwandan army chief of staff. France is pressing for UNAMIR's strength to be reinforced from 450 to 5,500 troops, as authorised by the UN Security Council in May, so it can take over from French forces. France intervened in western Rwanda nearly two weeks ago on what Paris said was a humanitarian mission to stop massacres.

France's actions came under fire yesterday from the Belgian Defence Minister, Leo Delcroix, who said France's actions in Rwanda had gone past simple humanitarian intervention. 'French soldiers are more and more involved in the internal situation in the country,' Mr Delcroix was quoted as saying. 'The affair is becoming very political and delicate. We are more and more reticent about intervening,' he added.

Earlier this week Belgium postponed plans to send in an army medical team to help French troops in Rwanda, saying the French could not guarantee the Belgian soldiers' safety.

Delcroix stressed the 'neutral character' of Belgium in its former colony, which he said was contrary to France's stand.

'From the beginning, we agreed with the French intervention in Rwanda,' he said.

'But since recent events in Rwanda, especially since Sunday, we are worried about getting involved in this ambigious situation.'

Belgium withdrew its 450- strong contingent of UN peace-keepers from Rwanda in April soon after 10 of its soldiers were killed after trying to protect the prime minister, who also died.

The US-based group Human Rights Watch also criticised France on Tuesday, saying in a letter to President Mitterrand that his troops should be apprehending those responsible for the massacres instead of shielding them inside the French military zone.

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