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French soldiers evacuate hundreds of foreigners, peace talks in sight

June 10, 1997

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ French soldiers rescued more shaken foreigners today from areas of Brazzaville hardest hit by fighting between government troops and rebel forces loyal to a former dictator.

Despite promises of truce talks in this Central African nation, mortar and machine gun fire persisted today around Brazzaville’s airport, even as 150 evacuees arrived in a French-protected convoy.

People reaching the airport described gruesome scenes in the city: bodies strewn across streets littered with spent shells; three victims sprawled out of a bullet-riddled limousine.

Tracer bullets and rocket-propelled grenades lit up the night sky. At first light, French troops headed into the more dangerous sections of the capital of this former French colony to pick up people stranded by the violence.

They passed thousands of locals, their belongings piled atop their heads, who were fleeing to safer southern districts. One old woman was pushed in a wheelbarrow. Many on the road carried weapons.

The fighting began Thursday, when President Pascal Lissouba tried to disarm the 5,000-man ``Cobra″ militia of Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso amid fears he would try to disrupt next month’s presidential elections.

The former dictator’s militia resisted, and intense battles ensued.

Sassou-Nguesso’s militia appeared to have gained control of the northern and central sections of the capital, while government troops held southern neighborhoods.

By this morning, French and U.S. officials had airlifted about 900 foreigners from Republic of Congo, which is next to its much-larger neighbor, Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

But thousands remained. The United States has been unable to evacuate 13 of 28 American diplomats, the State Department said. And two dozen American civilians were holed up at the U.S. Embassy, hoping to leave. U.S. officials suspended evacuation efforts Sunday during the heavy fighting.

French troops hoped to evacuate 500 people today. About 100 flew out this morning to the coastal city of Pointe-Noire, leaving hundreds of others waiting with piles of luggage, young children and wandering pets.

In Paris, officials said French President Jacques Chirac persuaded the two warring leaders to agree to hold peace talks, but no date was set yet.

``The president has obtained an agreement in principle both from Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso for a cease-fire and for mediation,″ Chirac spokeswoman Catherine Colonna told The Associated Press late Monday.

Hundreds of French paratroopers dropped from the skies Monday to bolster the French operation _ and 1,200 more French troops sent from other African countries and Paris were expected in Brazzaville today.

A Russian diplomat and his family spent five days holed up in their apartment building _ and escaped with their lives by staying with friends on the seventh floor. A shell exploded near their third-floor apartment.

``If we had stayed in our apartment, my wife and I would have died,″ he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``It was a huge explosion. All the balcony, the wall, the windows, everything _ even our bed _ was broken.″

Throughout the day Monday, foreigners in the capital flocked to the airport, reporting that the city’s Centreville neighborhood was strewn with bodies, spent shells and shattered glass. There were no reliable figures on casualties.

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. They confiscated her papers and let her go.

Fighting caused the evacuations to halt briefly Monday. They resumed later under cover of darkness. Those fleeing were herded in large groups onto the unlit airfield, completely surrounded by French soldiers.

Shooting tapered off as planes lifted from the runway, a sign that neither side wanted to antagonize the French.

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.

Sassou-Nguesso accused Lissouba of rigging the vote. The resulting violence left 2,000 people dead and prompted each leader to create his own militia.

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