Cease-fire shaky in Republic of Congo
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ Fresh gun battles and occasional shelling threatened Thursday to derail a cease-fire between soldiers and a private militia, while French troops scrambled to rescue foreigners still caught in the anarchy of this central African country.
While the fierce battles of the past week had subsided, fighting still shook the capital, Brazzaville, gaining in intensity through the afternoon. Both sides appeared to be girding for further clashes.
About two dozen government soldiers positioned themselves in a ditch near the French Embassy behind a line of mounted assault rifles, ready to respond to militia attacks.
The radio station of militia leader Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso resumed anti-government broadcasts Thursday and claimed Sassou-Nguesso was in control of 75 percent of the city. A French military spokesman said the figure was closer to 50 percent.
President Pascal Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso announced a truce Wednesday following a week of clashes that broke out when Lissouba attempted to disarm Sassou-Nguesso’s private Cobra militia.
The two have been bitter rivals for years, and tensions have increased in the run-up to July presidential elections in which both are candidates.
Lissouba, who defeated Sassou-Nguesso in 1992 elections, said he wanted to immobilize Sassou-Nguesso’s men to prevent campaign violence. Sassou-Nguesso, the former military ruler, says Lissouba was trying to spark clashes so he would have an excuse to delay the vote and retain power.
Few civilians appeared to have any faith in the cease-fire. The streets were deserted except for heavily armed gunmen and convoys of well-protected French soldiers looking for foreigners to assist.
Journalists accompanying a convoy through the Cobra-held Mpila neighborhood saw the body of a child apparently killed in cross fire, blood from a head wound pooling near his school bag. A man lay dead in a doorway among the burned buildings and bullet-pocked walls.
The smell of decomposing bodies wafted through streets littered with spent cartridges, clothing, papers, appliances, furniture and other goods dropped or discarded by looters.
The truce announcement raised hopes that peace talks could soon begin, but fighting still raged Thursday around the international airport and in several pockets of Brazzaville.
About 3,200 people have been airlifted out of the city, including 500 Thursday. They included more than a dozen Russians picked up at the Russian Embassy and five American embassy workers taken from the U.S. compound.
French military spokesman Alexis Jaraud said each side held about half the city and neither had advanced since the cease-fire. The faction leaders’ weak organization was one reason; another was the presence of about 1,000 French troops, particularly at the airport, which is in the middle of Cobra and government territory.
``We couldn’t fire in the direction of the government forces without risking hitting French evacuees,″ Sassou-Nguesso said in an interview with French radio. In the same interview, Sassou-Nguesso said the July election should take place on schedule but with international supervision.
``We are ready to respect the cease-fire. We didn’t shoot last night, but the other side are idiots,″ said Roch Ipangue, a rebel militia commander. Another gunman, Nbongo Dafoas, 17, said he been fighting since he was 11. He wore a blue track suit and red bandana and carried an AK-47.
Combatants say the latest fighting has killed hundreds, mainly civilians, but aid workers have been unable to get outside to confirm those reports.
In the Centreville neighborhood, flies swarmed over two bodies in the road, one of them a man in uniform sprawled across a traffic officer’s podium in the center of an intersection.
Not far from that scene, government soldiers were emptying the big Score department store of electronics goods, clothes, and major appliances _ even a refrigerator _ and loading them onto a truck.
The residence of the director of the French oil company ELF was cleaned out by looters, except for elegant African art objects left behind. Lawns of other houses were littered with goods.
Frenchman Jacques Bailly approached the passing French convoy and said he, his dog and a guard had remained in his house through the unrest. ``I stayed hoping it would calm down, that they would talk and find a solution,″ said Bailly. ``These are some of the nicest people in Africa. It is crazy to come to this.″