France inserted itself more directly into Rwanda's civil war today,
establishing a major base here six miles from the advancing Tutsi-led
rebel army and manning it with Foreign Legionnaires and paratroopers
supported by heavy artillery.
The purpose is to prevent the rebels' westward advance into the safe
zone declared by the French intervention force.
"It is a line in the sand," a French Army captain said.
The French move came on the same day that the rebel forces, the
Rwandan Patriotic Front, gained control of major Government
installations in Kigali, the capital.
After nearly three months of almost daily bombardment, the capital was
quiet today, United Nations officials there said. The rebels allowed
the Hutu to leave and Tutsi emerged from hiding. Kigali is 80 miles
north of the new French base.
The country's second-largest city, Butare, has also fallen to the
rebel army, according to a Rwandan Army general traveling today on the
road west of Butare. A football field two miles west of this base was
crowded today with wounded Government soldiers who had been forced to
flee from Butare.
The French move to set up the safe zone and stop the rebel army, which
was approved by President Francois Mitterrand, represents a
substantial change in its mission. Until now, the French have said
they are neutral. But in protecting a region that contains Government
forces but no rebel troops, France has effectively come to the rescue
of the beleaguered Hutu-dominated Government.
Hundreds of Rwandan soldiers, on foot and in passenger cars, were
fleeing farther west. Late in the afternoon, they passed a long convoy
of French jeeps with machine guns and six small tanks that was on the
way to the hilltop base here, 18 miles west of Butare. French Foreign
Legionnaires dug in on a strategic hillside along the route a few
miles from the base. Throughout the day, helicopters brought in
"My mission is not to fight the R.P.F.," Col. Didier Thibaut,
commander of the French paratroopers at the base, said on Sunday.
Today, he was still characterizing his mission as protective. "If the
R.P.F. comes here and threatens the population, we will open fire
against them without any hesitation," the colonel said, "and we have
Thousands of Tutsi who lived in this mountainous region have been
killed or forced to flee, and the population left to protect is
virtually all Hutu, including some 250,000 refugees from parts of the
country now controlled by the rebels.
As the French troops took up their positions, Rwandan officials drove
along the dirt roads, using loudspeakers to urge the people not to
flee, because the French had come to protect them.
Shortly after the outbreak of the civil war, which began in October
1990 when the rebels invaded from bases in Uganda, the French sent
paratroopers to stop the rebels, who were approaching Kigali. France
continued to support the Hutu-dominated Government with arms and
training, and as recently as six months ago French soldiers were here
in open support of the Government. They withdrew in December and did
not return until their present intervention, which began on June 23.
Last week a French official here said the rebels could not be allowed
to achieve a military victory. Even though Government-backed troops
are guilty of massacres, he said, the Tutsi will have to negotiate
with them. Tutsi are a minority, he added, and can not expect to run
the country, he said. (The Tutsi make up about 15 percent of Rwanda's
By confronting the rebels with military muscle, the French may be
hoping to bring them to the negotiating table.
From the beginning of the French intervention, the rebels have accused
the French of favoring the Government, and today they charged that the
French were exceeding the United Nations mandate that approved
intervention to protect refugees.
The French sought to renew their mandate on Saturday, when they asked
the United Nations Security Council to specifically support
establishment of a safe haven in southwestern Rwanda from which all
military forces would be excluded.
By moving troops into the area, the French have effectively acted
without waiting for United Nations approval, though there was no
visible effort to create an entirely military-free zone. Rwandan
Government troops moved freely throughout the area today, and a
checkpoint less than a mile from the French base was manned by
militiamen with machetes, rifles and grenades.
The militia have been responsible for much of the slaughter of Tutsi,
according to human-rights organizations. "The militia have killed far
more people than have uniformed members of the armed forces," Human
Rights Watch/Africa said in a report in May.
Several French commanders have said since their arrival that they do
not have the authority to disarm the militias.
Rebels' Rights Record
While the rebels have been accused of rights violations, rights
organizations have said they are not guilty of mass killings of
civilians, which has characterized the Government's war against the
"The R.P.F. does not have a good human-rights record," African Rights,
a rights organization in London said in May. "There are documented
cases of killing of suspected militia members and indiscriminate
attacks on civilian targets. However the R.P.F. is not implicated in
the genocide," the organization said, and "the major reason for the
abatement of the killings has been the advance of the R.P.F."
When the rebels moved into Butare on Sunday, they passed through large
numbers of fleeing Hutu without incident. And there have been no
reports that the rebels attacked the thousands of refugees camped a
few miles south of Butare.
But the refugees have been bombarded for months by Government
broadcasts saying the rebels will kill all Hutu, and many refugees are
certain the rebels will seek revenge. There was real fear among the
fleeing civilians today, aggravated by their concern about being
trapped between the French and rebel forces.