French troops arrive in Congo ahead of UN force

FRENCH troops arrived in Congo yesterday to prepare the way for an international force charged with stabilising a region wracked by tribal fighting, a UN official said yesterday.

The international force will reinforce 750 beleaguered UN troops from Uruguay whose mandate is to protect UN installations and personnel but not the local civilian population. UN troops are only authorised

to shoot in self defence. The international force, code-named Artemis, is deploying troops under both UN and European Union mandates and will be authorised during its three-month mission to shoot to kill if necessary.

The French vanguard arrived in Bunia “to check the tactical situation on the ground, to check the geography, to check the state of the airstrip and to organize security for planes” that would bring the main force of up to 1,700 troops, said Colonel Daniel Vollot, the commander of UN forces already in Bunia.

He did not say how many troops had arrived. Vollot, who is French, does not have a formal role in the new force, but he has been in contact with the French troops who arrived at Bunia airport yesterday.

France will provide 1,000 troops and the force commander, General Jean-Paul Thonier.

The composition of the remainder of the force, which will not operate under UN command nor wear the hallmark blue helmets of UN peacekeepers, has not yet been confirmed.

But it is expected to include troops from Canada, South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Hema and Lendu tribal militias began fighting for control of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province, on May 7 after some 6,000 troops from neighboring Uganda pulled out in accordance with a deal with the Congolese government intended to end the four-and-a-half-year-old civil war in Africa’s third-largest nation.

Tribal fighting over the past month has killed more than 500 people.

The Rwandan-backed Hema Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, controls Bunia.

In August 1998, both Rwanda and Uganda backed Congolese rebels attempting to oust then-President Laurent Kabila. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent in troops to support Kabila. The foreign troops have all withdrawn, but rebel groups in eastern Congo are still supported by Uganda and Rwanda.

A unit of French army technical experts arrived on Thursday at Entebbe airport, in neighboring Uganda, to establish a support base there, Colonel Christian Baptiste, a French army spokesman, said in Paris.

The French-led force is to stay on until September.

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