French warning as Kigali falls to Rwanda rebels

KIGALI - Jubilant rebels yesterday captured Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and the last large government-held southern town of Butare, but in what appeared a radical policy shift, French troops were ordered to halt any advance.

Witnesses said forces of the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) pushed into central Kigali shortly after daybreak following two days of intense artillery bombardment. Hundreds of dispirited government soldiers, fleeing the rebel advance, tramped up the Central African city's mist- shrouded hills to escape southwards through the one exit not sealed by RPF fighters.

'I am so happy, for so long I have dreamed of walking through the streets of Kigali,' said Colonel Frank Mugambe, the RPF commander, as he escorted journalists around abandoned government positions. He said there was little fighting as the rebels moved into the city centre in their first big push in several weeks of fighting. 'The government appears to have withdrawn from all strategic sites in the city centre. There are still pockets of resistance, but those we are now dealing with,' he added.

Columns of rebel soldiers wound their way through the sandy lanes to take up positions. Tired and wet after more than three months of hard fighting, they waved and smiled at journalists.

Many residents appeared to be keeping off the streets, but at the Sainte Famille religious complex, a death camp for 2,000 refugees threatened by extremist militia of the Hutu tribe, there was jubilation. Rebel soldiers, mostly from the minority Tutsi tribe, embraced relatives and friends long given up for dead. 'Early yesterday the Interhamwe militia walked away and then nothing happened. I knew it was the end,' said a Tutsi student, Lin Niyonzima.

Only hours after securing control of Kigali, RPF forces to the south stormed into the last large government-held southern town of Butare and threatened to move deeper into the heartland of the government-backed Hutus. 'They have taken Butare. The information we have is it fell at 1200 local time (1000 GMT),' said a French officer at the main French base in Goma, Zaire, for Operation Turquoise.

But he added that RPF forces had not yet reached Gikongoro, where French troops were ordered yesterday to halt the rebel advance on the government's enclave in the west of Rwanda.

Colonel Didier Thibaut, based in Gikongoro, 20km (12 miles) from the battle front, said Colonel Jacques Rosier, commander of Operation Turquoise's southern command, had ordered him to stop the rebels from capturing the town or going beyond it. The order marks a radical shift in France's policy towards the RPF and puts Operation Turquoise on a new offensive footing just as rebel forces are turning against the West.

Paris insists that it is leading a purely humanitarian mission and has avoided whenever possible any confrontation with the rebels.

Colonel Thibaut said the decision took effect immediately. He added that the French would fly in reinforcements to boost their 100- man presence in Gikongoro, the next town on the road leading west. 'No one will go any further . . . ours remains a humanitarian mission, in the security sense of the word,' he said.

The RPF has always accused the French of intervening in Rwanda to help government forces, which were trained and armed by the French in the past. 'If the RPF comes here and threatens the population, we will fire on them without any hesitation,' Colonel Thibaut said. 'We have the means and we will soon have more. It's true that there are 2,000 of them, but you saw how powerful our firepower was,' he added, referring to a clash on Sunday.

Later, the commander of French forces in Rwanda vowed that his troops would fight armed infiltration of areas under their control but insisted France was staying neutral. Brigadier-General Jean-Claude Lafourcade gave the pledge in a statement he said was being made to avoid any misunderstanding about the humanitarian mission he directed. He said: 'We will oppose any infiltration of armed elements into areas under our responsibility. Our neutrality, however, will remain the rule to be applied and we have abided by it since we intervened. We will stick to it.'

French troops established a position 10km east of Gikongoro, drawing a line which they said the RPF must not cross. Outside Gikongoro they set up an anti- tank launcher and helicopters flew in supplies throughout yesterday afternoon.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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