Le Monde alleged that former soldiers, including two senior Elysee Palace officers, have spent the past three months recruiting a multinational force of mercenaries.The paper said that a dozen or more former French officers were already in northern Zaire, along with a "white legion" of 300-400 men, including French, British, Belgians, South Africans and Angolans. Several hundred more troops were due to arrive in the next two weeks.
The alleged purpose of the force was to support the Zairean army in pushing back the rebel forces that currently occupy regions in the north and east of the country. The two named officers, Colonel Alain Le Carro and a former gendarme, Robert Montoya, both served at the Elysee during the presidency of Francois Mitterrand, who died a year ago today. Colonel Le Carro was head of presidential security until 1994.
The French authorities, including the Elysee Palace itself and the Defence Ministry, at once denied all knowledge of the mercenary operation, still less any involvement. The recruitment exercise, however - said to have been conducted in the name of the Zaire government - appears to have run parallel with France's abortive diplomatic efforts through the autumn to persuade other European countries and the United States to contribute to a multinational humanitarian force for Zaire.
The force was to have brought relief to thousands of Rwandan refugees believed to be stranded in the east of the country. But there were suspicions, even in some circles in France, that the humanitarian mission could easily transform itself, with a little help from Paris, into a military mission shoring up the French-backed regime of Zaire's President Mobutu. This was one reason why other countries were so reluctant to take part and why the idea was eventually abandoned.
The Le Monde claim that a force of white mercenaries is gathering in northern Zaire offers one explanation for the insistent reports from Zairean rebel leaders on Monday that French forces had arrived near the northern town of Kisangani. Those reports, relayed from rebel headquarters in the eastern town of Goma, said the 1,000-strong force, supported by mercenaries, had transport aircraft, tanks and helicopters at its disposal.
The reports were furiously denied by officials in Paris. The French Defence Ministry said that France was "aware" of "mercenary forces operating in Africa", but would not elaborate.
The South-African based military advisory company, Executive Outcomes, denied yesterday that it was involved. "Executive Outcomes has no personnel in Zaire and has never had any personnel in Zaire," it said in a press release.
The chairman of Executive Outcomes Eeben Barlow maintained that he had not been approached by the Zairean government.
Mr Barlow maintains that he has an undertaking with the Angolan government, for which EO has worked, and his other "clients" that he will not at any stage in the present or the future work for or support the "opposition." The Zairean government has had close ties to Angola's rebel Unita movement.
Mr Barlow said that: "if we started to work for the Zairean government against the wishes of the Angolan government then we would lose credibility and probably existing contracts we have with other governments."
The timing of the Le Monde revelations, which bear all the hallmarks of an official leak, suggests that they were intended as a direct response to Monday's allegations that French forces were operating in northern Zaire. The message is: "We know there are French troops there, but they have nothing to do with France or French policy."
The allegations came as the Zaire rebels tried to reassure foreign mining companies not to pull out of the area of the country which they control. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila said: "The military pressure in Kisangani and Kalemie has made these companies wary ... but we want them to come and the soil is ours. We will sell our mines to whoever can offer their services."