NAIROBI, KENYA — FRENCH troops protecting a unilaterally declared safety zone in western Rwanda appeared headed toward a standoff July 5 with rebels advancing from the capital, but it remained uncertain at press time whether the two sides would engage militarily.
A day after capturing the capital of Kigali and the country's second largest city, Butare, the Rwandan Patriotic Front announced it would establish a provisional government within days and would declare a cease-fire.
Troops of the predominantly Tutsi RPF, meanwhile, continued to march westward toward Gikongoro, where some 500 French troops have been deployed to protect an estimated 400,000 civilians.
French President Francois Mitterrand, who is meeting in South Africa with President Nelson Mandela, called again July 5 for the United Nations to take over the peacekeeping operation, and officials in Paris attempted to downplay the possibility of a confrontation with the RPF.
The rebel gains, however, have made clear that any effort to defuse Rwanda's civil war must now deal directly with the ethnic question. Behind resistance to negotiations lies decades of politically manipulated mistrust and periodic violence between the nation's two major ethnic groups, the majority Hutu, who controlled the government, and the minority Tutsi.
``We have to be in the open and talk about Hutu and Tutsi,'' says Cyprien Habimana, Rwanda's ambassador to Kenya. Any other kind of negotiations would simply be ``cosmetic,'' he says.
Rwanda slid back into civil war after April 6, when the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi were killed in a plane crash. Estimates of the number of people slaughtered in Rwanda since then range from 200,000 to 500,000.
Barring a reversal of French intervention policy, there are now three major forces in the war: the rebels, the Army, and the French, behind whose lines the Army can reassemble and try to rearm.
French government spokesmen reconfirmed their intentions to hold tight on the borders of the newly established humanitarian ``safety zone'' in western Rwanda. In doing so, they face an enormous problem of not only feeding masses of Hutu refugees but also possible confrontation with the rebels.
``The mission has not changed'' in Rwanda, said one French official after the fall of Kigali and Butare, adding that France is now aiming to broker a cease-fire between the two ethnic rivals.
``The French government has decided to maintain the mission of the troops, asking them not to get into conflict with the military forces of Rwanda. It is not our place,'' the official said. ``We are not part of the civil war. We do not choose one side or the other. We simply defend those who are at risk.''
France is ``waiting with great impatience that the UN should move in and take our place,'' President Mitterrand said.
Hutu militia - made up of armed civilians - are considered by some analysts to be a fourth force in the war. These militia have been blamed in a June 30 report by a UN human rights investigator for the majority of the 200,000 to 300,000 killings since April, most of them Tutsi or Hutu opponents to the government.Hutus, on the other hand, claim that atrocities by the Tutsi have yet to come to the world's attention, and they cite undocumented examples of Tutsi brutality to civilians.
THE rebels, meanwhile, seemed prepared to continue advancing.
``I expect the military campaign against the government will continue,'' says Gerald Gehima, RPF envoy to the US and the United Nations.
Though the RPF is trying to do ``everything possible'' to avoid conflict with the well-armed French troops, ``we will not give up our objective of following up those people responsible for atrocities,'' he said in an interview following the rebel capture of Kigali and Butare.
Mr. Gehima says that if the French are trying to engineer a cease-fire between the RPF and the Army, ``they can go to the international community and ask them to force a settlement.''
But the RPF refuses to negotiate with the ``rump government'' and sees little sign that the Army can be negotiated with because of its backing of the atrocities, he says. The Rwandan government is showing a similar reluctance to negotiate.
The RPF decision to continue the offensive ``means they are still getting arms and ammunition, which means the UN embargo on arms is not applied to them,'' Mr. Habimana says.
He blames RPF gains in recent weeks on an alleged augmentation of forces from demobilizing Ugandan Army troops. Some of the RPF leaders are former Ugandan soldiers, according to the RPF itself.
French troops say they will be out of Rwanda soon, though it is not clear if they will stick to this time- table given the major setbacks of the Rwandan Army, which they have helped train and arm.
And the French are likely to be replaced by African troops as part of the UN force there.
Tutsi rebels escort journalists to sites of Hutu militia massacres of Tutsi. And in a large refugee camp in Tanzania, Hutus recount tales of Tutsi rebels using short-handled hoes instead of guns to massacre Hutus as a way of ``saving bullets.''
But there are also reports of some Hutus rescuing Tutsi from death. And in the Tanzania camp, there are some Hutu-Tutsi couples, who say ordinary Hutu and Tutsi once got along and may yet again.