The World This Week

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The Independent Online
FRANCE is set to rediscover Indochina. So said a spokesman for Francois Mitterrand, announcing the President's visit to Hanoi tomorrow until Thursday and to Cambodia on Thursday and Friday. But the rediscovery is already turning up darker memories of a bitter colonial conflict. The high point of Mr Mitterrand's trip is to be a visit to Dien Bien Phu, where Vietnamese forces defeated the cream of the French army in 1954, transforming the fate of the region.

Mr Mitterrand hoped to honour the 3,000 French dead at the site of a garrison whose fall brought the end of French rule in Indochina. But the Vietnamese want a tribute at their own memorial at Dien Bien Phu. Vietnamese officials accompanying the President are expected to abandon him at the site of the battle where 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers died. He may have to send a former armed forces chief, General Maurice Schmitt, a Dien Bien Phu veteran, to visit the spot in his place if the dispute is not ironed out.

The trip has stirred up a row at home. Mr Mitterrand had hoped to bring along some senior French veterans of the battle, but most have turned him down. Many blame the precursors of Mr Mitterrand's Socialists, who were in France's ruling coalition at the time, for the defeat.

Now that agreement has been reached, after more than 20 years, on banning the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, swift action is being taken to give the pact some teeth. A newly created body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, meets for the first time today until Friday in The Hague to start implementing the chemical weapons convention signed last month by 137 countries.

The pact comes into force in two years if parliaments of 65 countries ratify it by then, and the new agency will enforce it by carrying out 'anytime, anywhere' inspections of suspect factories. It will try to stop countries that did not sign from importing chemicals that could make poison gas.

Countries must destroy their chemical weapons within 10 years, though Russia and the US have an extra five years because of their huge stocks. This week's talks will focus on setting up the organisation and planning its work.

The treaty is a big advance on the 1925 Geneva protocol it replaces, which banned only the use of chemical weapons. But many Arab countries did not sign, in protest at Israel's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They included Iraq, which dropped poison gas in the Iran- Iraq war.

President Cesar Gaviria of Colombia appears in court in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla today for a hearing on a US company's claim for up to pounds 7m of sunken treasure from a 17th-century Spanish galleon. The judge ruled that only the President could negotiate for the government. A US salvage company, Sea Search Armada, wants 50 per cent of the treasure; the Colombians have offered 5 per cent.

The San Jose was laden with gold coins and emeralds when it sank off the Colombian coast in 1708 after being attacked by English buccaneers.