Soldiers kill envoy in Zaire rampage

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KINSHASA - Mutinous Zairean soldiers rampaged through the streets of Kinshasa and shot dead the French ambassador yesterday before being forced back to barracks by troops loyal to President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Witnesses said the mutineers, from two different barracks, opened fire and looted shops in protest at the introduction of new banknotes which opposition leaders say are worthless. A stray bullet hit the French ambassador, Philippe Bernard, in the stomach in his office at his residence in the central business district of the city. The 62-year-old envoy, who had been in Kinshasa only since December, died immediately, according to witnesses quoted on French radio.

Members of Mr Mobutu's presidential guard and other special forces then drove the mutinous soldiers away, killing several of them, witnesses said. The French Foreign Ministry confirmed that Mr Bernard had been killed but did not comment on the circumstances. 'We are following the situation very closely and we will take whatever steps we need to ensure the security of French nationals if the situation should deteriorate,' a spokesman said.

By late evening the city centre was quiet although there was sporadic gunfire in the suburbs of Lemba, Limete and Binza. Presidential guards patrolled the streets. The violence erupted after the introduction on Tuesday of a new 5m-zaire banknote (worth about pounds 1.30) source of the latest power struggle between Mr Mobutu and the reformist Prime Minister, Etienne Tshisekedi. Mr Tshisekedi and pro-democracy opposition leaders, fearing that so high a denomination could fuel hyperinflation, immediately declared the notes invalid. The mutinous soldiers apparently feared this would render their wages for the month worthless.

Witnesses said the mutineers plundered several shops including big supermarkets and looted a number of homes belonging to rich Zaireans and foreigners. Belgian television reported that two Belgians were wounded in the rampage.

Between 50 and 80 French nationals gathered at Mr Bernard's residence for shelter before the ambassador was shot, the foreign ministry spokesman said. 'The rest of the French community (in Zaire), about a thousand, are remaining calm and are in contact with our embassy through a radio network we always operate at moments of tension,' he added.

The violence was among the most serious since army looting and pillaging in Kinshasa and several other cities in September 1991 which killed at least 250 people and crippled the economy. On that occasion both France and Belgium sent in troops to safeguard their nationals, applying pressure on President Mobutu to take a hesitant path towards democratic reform.

Opposition to Mr Mobutu has mounted in recent weeks. The Sacred Union opposition alliance declared a week of civil disobedience and a general strike earlier this month in a campaign to oust the President, in power for over a quarter of a century.

Mr Bernard was a career diplomat who spent most of his life in Africa and the Middle East.