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French paratroopers arrive, ready to enter Brazzaville fighting zone

June 10, 1997

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ French forces say they are ready to enter Brazzaville areas hit by fierce fighting between government troops and rebels loyal to a former dictator to evacuate foreigners blocked from the airport.

Bodies litter the downtown streets of the Republic of Congo’s capital, say foreigners who fled the urban warfare _ now in its sixth day.

In Paris, officials said Monday that French President Jacques Chirac has negotiated general terms of a cease-fire, but the warring parties must still work out details. They said Gabon President Omar Bongo would mediate.

Hundreds of French paratroopers arrived Monday in this equatorial African nation along with a C-130 cargo plane with armored vehicles. About 1,200 French soldiers would be in the capital by today, the French Defense Ministry said.

French and U.S. officials already had airlifted about 800 foreigners from this former French colony, which touches on the Atlantic Ocean and is next to its much larger neighbor, Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

But thousands remain stranded. The United States has been unable to evacuate 13 of 28 American diplomats from the country, the U.S. State Department said.

Violence erupted last week when government troops, fearing attempts to disrupt next month’s presidential elections, tried to disarm the 5,000-strong ``Cobra″ militia of former military leader Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a longtime rival of President Pascal Lissouba.

French troops have avoided the city’s Centreville neighborhood area since Thursday, when a French soldier was killed in cross fire. But French officers said Monday night they had drawn up plans to get foreigners out of two Centreville hotels, the Cosmos and Sofitel.

Foreigners who did reach the airport Monday departed safely. Clashes as near as 500 yards of the airport tapered off as planes lifted from the runway, a sign that neither side wanted to antagonize the French.

British aid worker Richard Bartlett, holed up in the Cosmos, said the expanded evacuation plans could not come too soon.

``It is only a matter of time before the hotel gets hit,″ said Bartlett, an engineer for Oxfam contacted by satellite phone. ``We are desperately hoping French or American troops will be able to cross the front lines to reach us.″

The U.S. Embassy has been advising about 200 private Americans in the country to remain indoors, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said in Washington.

U.S. Embassy officials in Brazzaville were in radio contact with both sides, also trying to arrange a truce so that about 24 civilians seeking shelter at the embassy could be taken to the airport.

Besides evacuations carried out by France and the United States, the U.N. refugee agency has evacuated 62 people, and about 50 Chinese fled in two small aircraft to the Congo capital Kinshasa, just across the Congo River from Brazzaville.

Throughout the day Monday, foreigners in the besieged capital flocked to the Aeroclub, a charter flight club where French soldiers were organizing flights.

The foreigners _ mostly French or from neighboring Congo _ said Centreville was strewn with dead bodies, spent shells and shattered glass. One woman shook with sobs while her three small children played at her feet.

``We spent four days locked up in the house. We saw bullets landing in the garden and heard explosions that made the walls shake,″ said Therese Prat, a 54-year-old French jeweler.

Prat said government troops looted her home and stole her car. ``We’ve been here since 1965 and now we’ve lost everything.″

Others reported being mistreated by Cobra rebel forces.

``We hadn’t eaten for three days, so we tried to go and buy bread, and we were stopped by the Cobras who made us stand in the sewage ditch,″ said Elisee Oba, a 24-year-old hairdresser from Congo. They confiscated her papers and let her go.

The leader of the Cobras, Sassou-Nguesso, ruled as a dictator for more than a decade until he was forced to introduce political reforms in 1991.

Elections the following year installed Lissouba as president. The antagonism between the two men erupted in bloodshed during legislative elections the following year.

Sassou-Nguesso and another opposition leader, Bernard Kolelas, accused Lissouba of rigging the vote. Resulting violence left 2,000 people dead and led to each man creating a personal militia.

The Republic of Congo has 2.6 million people. A French colony from 1880 to 1960, its economy survives mainly on exports of oil, wood, coffee and diamonds.

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