Hutus prepare to welcome French

GIKONGORO - Hutus in central Rwanda were practising their pro-French slogans yesterday as they waited impatiently for 'Operation Turquoise' to arrive and halt the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) advance across the country.

In the town of Gikongoro, 115km (70 miles) east of the French base at Cyangugu and just 20km (12 miles) from the battlefront, hundreds of Hutus had been summoned by the local prefect, Laurent Bucyibaruta, to fine-tune the welcome they are preparing for France's special forces.

French tricolours were flapping from bicycles, trucks and cars, and the crowd brandished placards neatly printed with slogans. 'Down with Museveni', 'Vive la co- operation Franco-Rwandaise', 'Mitterrand, Mobutu - bravo'.

Although local officials insist they only want the French to help them deal with the 200,000 displaced Hutus who have poured into the district, it is clear that residents here are counting on the French to halt the RPF drive west.

The atmosphere in this district is more tense than in Cyangugu, where the French are currently deployed. On the main highway the Rwandan army and Hutu militias have set up roadblocks every few kilometres. In a field by the road soldiers in camouflage were practising marching in unison.

The deep forest of Nyungwe separates Gikorongo from 'Operation Turquoise', but the French say it is their firm intention to penetrate into this part of the country. On Monday a French Puma helicopter was already flying overhead, reconnoitring the region.

Gikongoro is Rwanda's least fertile district, and the arrival of 200,000 displaced people has put an enormous strain on the local population of 450,000, already hit by last year's drought and poor harvest.

Western non-governmental organisations abandoned the area, which also holds 17,000 Burundi refugees, when the civil war broke out in April.

'The displaced have no food, so the local population must feed them. There's not enough to go round as it is, and now we must share,' Mr Bucyibaruta says. 'The schools are full of displaced people, so teaching has stopped, and we're beginning to see sanitation problems. If this war continues we simply don't know where everyone will go.'