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Officers deny mercenary claim

Two senior officers formerly attached to the Elysee Palace have strongly denied claims that they were involved in recruiting mercenaries to support the regime of President Mobutu of Zaire, and said they were victims of "a manipulation" of the facts. They denied "any participation, direct or indirect, in any mercenary activity in Zaire".

Colonel Alain Le Caro, who headed the Presidential Security Service until 1994, said the allegations "call into question my honour and I ask myself who benefits from this manipulation." He said he had contacts with most West African heads of state, but that his work was mainly with "companies or individuals" doing business in Africa; he speculated that "those engaged in shady dealings" might have it in for him.

The other man named in Le Monde's report, Robert Montoya - a former member of the anti-terrorist unit at the Elysee - was quoted as saying during a stopover in Paris that he had "never set foot in Zaire" and that he only ever represented French companies in Africa. He said that he had his own security company based at Lome in Togo.

There is no doubt that France's future role in Africa is now being seriously questioned behind the political scenes. For the second day this week, the pro-government newspaper, Le Figaro, published an article - this time by a specialist security consultant - arguing that France's 7,000-strong military presence in Africa was unsustainable and that it was time to "stop risking the lives of our soldiers in quarrels that do not concern us".

The writer was alluding to the killing of two French soldiers last week in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, which prompted reprisal raids by French troops, described by Paris as "a limited operation in legitimate self-defence". Yesterday the President, Jacques Chirac, defended the Bangui operation in the face of widespread criticism - including, reportedly, from some in the military.The Defence Ministry also took the opportunity to repeat its denials of any involvement in military operations in Zaire, mercenary or otherwise. But a ministry source also said: "If I was in President Mobutu's place, I would be recruiting mercenaries wherever I could find them. But this is not a French problem and has nothing to do with France."

In passing, he also admitted that France had given up on an international force for Zaire, saying that the bulk of French troops sent to the region had been withdrawn because the operation had been "abandoned".