Rwanda's rebels set to capture last Hutu bastion

RWANDAN rebels yesterday were poised to take the last extremist Hutu bastion between them and the government deemed responsible for murders of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans.

The garrison town of Ruhengeri, surrounded by the mainly Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), was expected to fall soon. The government army has abandoned the town and has fled with hundreds of thousands of civilians to the city of Gisenyi on Lake Kivu - the last corner of extremist Hutu domain in Rwanda.

Once Ruhengeri falls, nothing remains to block the RPF from moving on Gisenyi, least of all French soldiers, who are watching the endgame of Rwanda's civil war from the relative safety of a United Nations-backed 'safe area' for displaced civilians hundreds of miles away in the south-west.

Since French intervention forces arrived as part of Operation Turquoise nearly three weeks ago, there has been a lot of speculation about France's intentions in Rwanda. At first seen as an attempt by Paris to bolster its French-speaking Hutu allies against the Anglophone RPF, Operation Turquoise has not proved a prop to the Hutu government.

'If the French really had political ambitions they would be reinforcing Gisenyi right now. But they are not, because they probably realise it was not a viable option,' said a relief worker, whose organisation is active in both rebel and government-held areas. 'It would have led to a confrontation which was not in France's long-term interests.'

The French mission has not always been so clear. Last week, following the fall of Butare, Rwanda's second city, the French looked like they were going to become a fighting force to thwart the RPF advance. But 24 hours after tough talk about 'drawing a line in the sand', Paris beat a retreat and limited itself to its UN-approved humanitarian mission.

According to observers in east Africa, Paris may have intended at first to impose a pro-Hutu policy on Rwanda, but events on the ground dictated another course.

When French soldiers first crossed into government-controlled western Rwanda last month, and were greeted by crowds of Hutus waving French flags, many believed the minority Tutsis, backed by the RPF, were responsible for killing Hutus. Continuing blatant attacks by Hutu militias on Tutsis shook the French out of their illusions.

French military officers were then left with the question of how to interpose between a force representing the victims of a genocide and an army representing those responsible for the slaughter of up to 1 million people.

'The French realise that if they want to have a future role they have to be a reconciling force and not play behind the scenes with the government,' the relief worker said. Whatever the case, the French turned what many observers say was an ill-conceived mission into a prestige operation.

In the last three weeks, France has set up a 'safe zone' for nearly 1 million Hutus fleeing the RPF advance, and has evacuated 1,300 people, mainly Tutsis, from areas where they were threatened by militias, to protected camps.

'There is no doubt about it that many people are alive today who might not have been had the French not arrived. France has also succeeded in lining up international opinion behind something which they were not lined up behind before,' said one experienced Western diplomat.

Paris now wants out while the going is good. France's Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, on Monday told the UN Security Council that France had fulfilled its mission and now wanted UN forces to take over at the end of the month. Several countries have promised to contribute to a force to relieve the French, but financial and equipment shortages have hindered their arrival.

The main threat to France's credibility in Rwanda concerns government militia members accused of war crimes who may seek refuge with the French forces.

(Photograph omitted)