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French Forces In Rwanda Wield A Puny Stick

June 30, 1994

GOMA, Zaire (AP) _ French marines blaze to wherever they want to go in Rwanda, breezing past thugs at roadblocks who pose no obstacle to their speeding jeeps.

Once the dust clears and the French machine guns are out of sight, the barriers go back up - as does the risk of death by club or machete.

A week into its humanitarian operation to save lives in Rwanda, France is speaking softly and carrying a puny stick.

The French troops appear far too few, trying to cover too much territory. Their orders are far too constricting to halt the slaughter that has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, most of them minority Tutsis.

They have to keep their fingers crossed that the crowds who greeted them by tossing flowers in the first gleeful days won’t become disillusioned and start throwing something harder.

For the moment, no one is giving the marines or Foreign Legion a hard time - neither the majority Hutus, who saw the intervention of their former ally as an 11th-hour deliverance, nor the Tutsi-led rebels, who mistrust Paris and whom the French are carefully avoiding.

″Nobody, I think, has the intention of attacking the French troops with a machete,″ said Jean-Christophe Rufin, a Defense Ministry official helping coordinate the military operation with humanitarian relief.

Not yet. But the cheering Hutu crowds who have lined the roads over the past few days are convinced that the French patrols speeding past are out to help them tackle the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Blank stares greet attempts to explain that the French have no stated intention of tangling with the rebels, or propping up Kigali, the capital, against the rebels’ siege. The U.N. mandate limits the operation to two months and allows only for assisting people in danger.

The helicopter evacuation of 35 nuns and orphans Tuesday from a town where thousands have been massacred was a classic special forces operation. But it is ironic that they were plucked out by a force that in theory is supposed to protect people inside the country.

Commanders say there’s not much they can do until the last of the 2,500-man contingent arrives at base camps in Zaire this weekend. But only about half will operate inside Rwanda, covering perhaps a quarter of the country and woefully inadequate to guard the 800,000 refugees the military estimates it has located.

At present only 100 to 200 troops stay inside Rwanda at night. Troops remain only in areas where people are at extreme risk, to avoid the appearance of an occupying army. The rest pull back to base camps in Zaire after dark.

Brig. Gen. Jean-Claude Lafourcade says the French presence alone is a strong deterrent, and there is little doubt of the impact that the crack European soldiers have made on the ragged militias.

But reports of hit-and-run killings and house burnings are still rife. And the troops won’t be able to guard relief convoys.

″We don’t have the men nor the mandate to guard convoys. We are trying to create a safe atmosphere they can operate in,″ said army spokesman Col. Andre Schill.

Is protection needed? Many aid agencies are unable to operate, but the International Committee of the Red Cross has shipped food into the country for years and isn’t missing a beat now.

″Operation Turquoise can come, stay, go, whatever, we’ll carry on,″ said Maria-Therea Garrido, an ICRC representative.

Most of the refugees visited by journalists appear to be relatively well fed. But they could be in greater peril from famine than ethnic killers.

″Rwanda is very fertile country, but the harvest risks not being taken in this year,″ said French Humanitarian Action Minister Lucette Michaux-Chevry, who visited the region Wednesday.

A familiar nightmare looms. In Somalia, civil war led to decimating famine - and a military and humanitarian aid operation that ended in disarray.

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