Skepticism Follows French Troops As They Sweep Through Rwanda

Some hail intervention, but rebels raise red flags on past military role

FRANCE'S intervention in Rwanda is drawing mixed reactions from Rwandans and skepticism from some international human rights groups.

Many Rwandans, including refugees at this massive camp just a few miles from the Tanzanian/Rwandan border, welcome the intervention. They believe the French troops who began crossing the borders on June 23 promise to limit their role to a humanitarian mission.

But given France's record of military support for the government Rwandan Army, other refugees and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) are suspicious of the French. They charge the French troops will try to rearm and prop up the beleaguered Rwandan Army. Thousands marched in protest June 26 near the capital of Kigali.

``As a refugee who has escaped the RPF, I'm somehow relieved'' about the arrival of French troops, says Mathias Ndajimana, standing in the middle of one of the wide, dusty roads in this huge camp of at least 250,000 Rwandan refugees. But ``if the French came to protect the government, it will be a problem.'' The problem, as he explains it, would be a prolongation of the war and his status as a refugee.

But in another section of this camp, across from a row of roadside shops set up by refugees, another Rwandan man sees the French intervention in less ambiguous terms: ``The French are coming to rescue the people,'' he insists in a loud, agitated voice.

Estimates of the number of people slaughtered in Rwanda since April 6, when the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed after an apparent rocket attack on their airplane in Rwanda, range from 200,000 to 500,000.

Now neighboring Burundi appears on the brink of a similar disaster, says the country's interim president, Sylvester Ntibantunga. Mounting ethnic killings have brought Burundi ``to the edge of an abyss,'' he told reporters on June 26 in Burundi.

In both Rwanda and Burundi, the Hutu account for about 85 percent of the population and the Tutsi 14 percent.

Slow response

Other than a small United Nations mission already in Rwanda when the killings began in April, no other nation besides France has sent troops there. The UN Security Council approved the French humanitarian role on June 22 by a 10 to 0 vote, but China, Brazil, Pakistan, New Zealand, and Nigeria abstained. The vanguard of the force, which will include 2,500 French and 200 Senegalese troops, has fanned out across western Rwanda.

RPF leaders threaten to attack French troops if they try to block rebel attacks. The French ``have been given a humanitarian mandate'' in Rwanda, says an RPF spokesman in Nairobi, Kenya. ``If they go beyond that limit, they will be interfering.''

In recent days, the RPF has stepped up attacks on the Army in the Rwandan capital, apparently trying to win control of Kigali before the French intervene. France has promised to keep its troops away from both government and rebel troops. But the timing of France's intervention has added to RPF doubts: France moved in only after the Rwandan Army lost control of nearly half the country.

``Why now?'' asks the RPF spokesman. ``I believe it is for ulterior motives - to prop up the Rwandan government.'' Such intervention will not shift the balance of power to the government, he predicts.

Aware of such skepticism, French troops have made symbolic moves during their first days in Rwanda. They secured a refugee camp of Tutsi - the minority ethnic group backing the RPF - and cleared away a few Hutu Army roadblocks. On June 28 they evacuated more than 40 nuns and orphans from a convent in central Rwanda.

Past French involvement

Rwanda's conflict is both ethnic and political: Many Hutu moderates opposed the autocratic rule of the late Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana.

When the RPF launched a civil war in 1990 against the Rwandan government to win power and rights for Tutsi refugees who had fled earlier massacres, French troops arrived for the stated purpose of saving French nationals. But some of the troops stayed on, arming and training the Rwandan Army, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. A diplomat in Kigali told this newspaper last year that French forces actually participated in some battles against rebels, a charge the French deny.

According to a January Human Rights Watch report, ``Arming Rwanda,'' ``France has either supplied or kept operational most of the heavy guns, artillery, assault vehicles, and helicopters used by Rwanda in the war.''

The report describes Rwanda's alleged ``secret arms deals with Egypt and South Africa,'' citing a $6 million arms sale by Egypt in 1992 financed with the help of a French-guaranteed loan. France and Egypt declined to respond to the report's authors. But according to the report, Rwandan Minister of Defense James Gasana confirmed the deal.

Michael Dottridge, Africa program director for Amnesty International, has called for human rights monitors to observe French troops in Rwanda.

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