More evacuations in Republic of Congo, preliminary cease-fire announced
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ French soldiers rescued more shaken foreigners today from areas of the capital hardest-hit by fighting between government troops and rebel forces loyal to a former dictator.
Despite promising signs of truce talks in the Republic of Congo, mortar and machine gun fire continued today around Brazzaville’s airport even as 150 new evacuees arrived in a French-protected convoy.
People who had reached the airport described gruesome scenes in the city center: bodies strewn across streets littered with spent shells; three victims sprawled out of a bullet-riddled limousine.
French troops headed at first light into the more dangerous sections in the capital of this equatorial African nation, a former French colony, to pick up people stranded by the violence.
The fighting erupted Thursday when President Patrick 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 militia resisted, and intense battles ensued.
Sassou-Nguessa’s militia appeared to have gained control of the northern and central sections of the city, while government troops held southern neighborhoods.
As of today, French and U.S. officials had airlifted about 900 foreigners from Republic of Congo, which touches on the Atlantic Ocean and 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 amid the heavy fighting after flying about 100 people _ half of them Americans _ to neighboring Congo.
In Paris, officials said late Monday that French President Jacques Chirac secured an agreement from Sassou-Nguesso and Lissouba to hold peace talks, but that no date was set. The warring parties still must work out details, the officials said.
The French hoped to airlift 500 people today. About 100 people flew early today to the coastal city of Pointe-Noire, leaving 300-400 waiting with luggage, children and pets, including a rabbit that hopped out of its owner’s grasp and disappeared in surrounding fields.
Hundreds of French paratroopers dropped from the skies Monday to bolster the French operation, which so far has airlifted about 800 people. About 1,200 French troops sent from other African countries and Paris were expected in Brazzaville by the end of today.
At least one French soldier has been killed, struck down by gunfire last week while trying to extricate civilians from two hotels in a beseiged downtown neighborhood.
The United Nations refugee agency also has evacuated 62 people, and about 50 Chinese fled in two small aircraft to Kinshasa on Monday.
British aid worker Richard Bartlett, holed up in one of the hotels, 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.″
Throughout the day Monday, foreigners in the capital flocked to the airport’s Aeroclub, a resort for private pilots.
The foreigners _ mostly French or from neighboring Congo _ said the city’s Centreville neighborhood 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.