More fighting as France sends in troops, U.S. seeks truce
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ Mortar fire thundered through the capital today as government troops battled militiamen. France poured in soldiers and U.S. officials tried to negotiate a truce so that foreigners could safely flee.
Militiamen loyal to the Republic of Congo’s former military leader, Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, appeared to have gained the upper hand in Brazzaville in five days of fighting.
Civilians fleeing across the Congo River in private planes and canoes to neighboring Congo, formerly Zaire, said Sassou-Nguesso’s soldiers controlled the building housing radio and TV broadcasters.
His 5,000-member militia expanded its control from northern strongholds to the city center. French Embassy spokesman Alexis Jaraud said government soldiers held the area south of Brazzaville.
Amid the fighting, looters ransacked shops and departed with furniture and TV sets balanced on their heads, evacuees said.
Violence broke out last week when government soldiers, fearing attempts to disrupt next month’s presidential elections, tried to disarm Sassou-Nguesso’s militia.
Sassou-Nguesso ruled the former French colony for more than a decade until he was forced to introduce political reforms in 1991. Elections in 1992 installed Pascal Lissouba as president, but the rivalry between the two continued.
Thousands of U.S. and European troops had been stationed in Brazzaville only weeks ago during the civil war in neighboring Congo. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila captured Kinshasa, the former Zairian capital, with relative ease and all but a few hundred French troops departed.
Today, France sent a C-130 cargo plane to Brazzaville with armed vehicles for its forces, and about 500 French soldiers were deployed from neighboring Central African Republic and Gabon.
In Kinshasa, a 20-minute canoe ride across the river, the sounds of heavy fighting could be heard past midnight and early today.
The fighting was concentrated in central Brazzaville, Jaraud said, and many buildings had been hit. The amount of heavy artillery being fired made casualties likely, he said, but it was impossible to determine the number of deaths.
In Paris, the French Defense Ministry said its forces had evacuated 460 French nationals to Libreville, Gabon, this morning. No other foreigners were with them, the ministry said.
About 100 other foreigners, half of them Americans, were evacuated on planes chartered by the U.S. Embassy between Saturday and early Sunday, when heavy street fighting forced the embassy to suspend the flights.
Americans who took the five-minute shuttle flight to Kinshasa described artillery exchanges in Brazzaville and residents cowering in their homes.
``It seemed everybody had a gun,″ American missionary Joseph Harvey said.
He said people streamed past his home with televisions, furniture, ``even kitchen sinks″ balanced on their heads. ``Women were standing by watching and laughing. It was like a party.″
Peace Corps volunteer Jennifer Rikert said she watched tanks roll past her bedroom window in the suburb of Poto-Poto and saw an unarmed man shot dead in cross fire.
``The combination of not eating, not sleeping and being the scaredest I’ve ever been in my life means I’m very glad to be out,″ Rikert, 24, said in Kinshasa.
At least one French soldier has been killed since Thursday, gunned down while trying to escort civilians. French troops were trying to reach stranded civilians today. The Foreign Ministry in Paris said about 550 foreigners had been taken to the French Embassy and other secure areas.
Two dozen civilians took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville, where officials were in radio contact with both sides in the conflict.
``We are hoping we can get some kind of cease-fire at least long enough to get them (civilians) to the airport,″ a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
South Africa today called for a cease-fire and peace talks. A Department of Foreign Affairs statement said there had been widespread hope that the end of the civil war in Congo would mean peace for Central Africa.
The violence has sent citizens of Congo _ who just weeks ago fled to Brazzaville ahead of Kabila’s rebel advance _ returning to Kinshasa by the hundreds.
Henriette Niangi, a seamstress, said she had rushed with her baby strapped to her back to the Congo River’s bank for the trip to Kinshasa.
``Every time there was shooting, I would fall to the ground and then get up and run,″ she said.