French troops rescue starving Tutsis: Robert Block reports from Bisesero on 400 Rwandans who were hunted like animals

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AFTER months of being hunted in the mountain forests of western Rwanda like animals, the ordeal of about 400 wounded and famished Tutsis came to an end yesterday with the arrival of 30 French soldiers. Emaciated and desperate, but extremely happy that help had arrived, the Tutsis gathered on a ridge under the gaze of a Hutu mob visible on a nearby hillside.

The Tutsis bore testimony to attempts by Rwandan soldiers and their Hutu militia allies to wipe out the last Tutsis living in areas under the control of Rwanda's Hutu government.

The genocide in Rwanda continues. For almost every day during the last three months, government troops accompanied by the militias combed the forests of the Bisesero mountain looking for Tutsis to kill. French forces who arrived in western Rwanda last week, ostensibly to stop the slaughter, were only a few miles away at their base in Gishyita, but their presence did little to stop it.

Until yesterday, the Hutus were burning tracts of the forest to try to flush out their prey. Blackened patches of woods covered large swathes of the hills around Bisesero. Hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed in systematic operations to hunt down and kill Tutsis. 'Many were killed. I don't know how many. There are corpses everywhere,' said Eric Nzabihimana, a 28-year-old Tutsi teacher.

Of the eight members of his family, Mr Nzabihimana said, only he and his 10-year-old sister survive.

When words could not describe the terror they had lived through, the victims let their bodies do the talking. A young woman loosened her shawl to uncover a gaping wound across the back of her neck and shoulders.

'This is from a machete. They tried to chop her head off as she ran away,' said Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana, a 20-year-old seminary student, who was explaining the woman's injury.

Another man, Monase Bimenyimana, lowered his trousers to expose a gaping infected bullet wound in his left buttock. 'I was trying to flee government forces three days ago when I was shot,' he said. 'Soldiers and militias came here to kill us, kill us, kill us.'

Dozens more lifted their shirts or unwrapped their home-made dressings to show festering wounds caused by grenades, spears and knives.

The smell of rotting flesh from the sometimes black and yellow wounds was unbearable.

The French, pressured into action by foreign journalists aware of the Tutsis' plight in Bisesero, finally acted yesterday after a four-day delay and sent a contingent of 30 paratroopers, marine commandos and special forces to protect the Tutsis.

But when they arrived they seemed little prepared for what they would find.

The smell of decomposing bodies wafted on the cool mountain air. The body of a dead youth could be seen in a field below the ridge near a damaged mud-brick house and a cluster of banana trees. French soldiers shouted into their radios about beaucoup de cadavres. When asked how many bodies they had found, one French soldier said: 'God knows. 300, maybe 400, not counting the dozens who have already been buried.'

The French seemed unprepared to undertake a mission that they had rejected until Wednesday. At the French base in Gishyita, French soldiers have been aware since at least Monday of the continued killings in Bisesero. The base commander, Colonel Marin Gillier, told journalists on Wednesday: 'A few people are being killed in the mountains every night,' but he refused to say who was being killed and who was doing the killing. 'I don't want to get involved in politics.'

France is a traditional ally of the Hutu government in Rwanda and its humanitarian mission in government-controlled parts of the country has come under criticism by Tutsi rebel forces who say that Paris' real aim is to bolster the Hutu government.

Looking up at the hill where the Hutus were gathered, Mr Nzabihimana said: 'The French say they can protect us, but what we really need is peace.'

(Photograph omitted)