June 9, 1997
Foreigners Stuck in Congo Clashes
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) -- Bodies littered the streets of Brazzaville and French paratroopers poured out of the sky Monday to help evacuate foreigners caught in fighting between government troops and a private militia. France says it negotiated a preliminary cease-fire.
Mortar fire thundered through the capital of the Republic of Congo during a fifth day of fighting between government troops and militiamen loyal to former military leader Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso.
As night fell and tracer bullets and rocket-propelled grenades lit up the sky, the 5,000-strong militia appeared to have secured its grip on the northern and central sections of the city, while government troops held southern neighborhoods.
Civilians fleeing across the Congo River to Kinshasa, capital of the former Zaire, said the militia, known as the Cobras, controlled the state radio and television building.
In Paris, a spokeswoman for French President Jacques Chirac said Sassou-Nguesso and President Pascal Lissouba had agreed to peace talks during conversations with Chirac on Monday evening.
``The president has obtained an agreement in principle both from Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso for a cease-fire and for mediation,'' presidential spokeswoman Catherine Colonna told The Associated Press.
French officials later said that details of the cease-fire remained to be worked out between the two sides.
Along with the paratroopers, France sent reinforcements to the chaotic city to evacuate citizens caught in the cross fire. Fighting forced a brief suspension of evacuations at mid-day, after 560 French nationals were flown to neighboring Gabon.
The French Defense Ministry said 1,200 French soldiers would be in Brazzaville by Tuesday, including the French Navy and Foreign Legion parachutists who landed Monday. France also sent a C-130 cargo plane with armored vehicles to reinforce its forces in the former French colony.
The United States has been unable to evacuate 13 of 28 American diplomats from the country, the U.S. State Department said Monday.
The U.S. Embassy also has been advising about 200 private Americans in the country to remain indoors because of the unsafe conditions, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said in Washington.
U.S. Embassy officials in Brazzaville were in radio contact with both sides, trying to arrange a truce so that about two dozen civilians seeking shelter at the embassy could be taken to the airport and flown to Kinshasa.
About 100 foreigners, half of them Americans, have been evacuated on private airplanes chartered by the U.S. Embassy since Saturday, but evacuations have been hampered by the militia battles. About 24 Americans remained in the U.S. Embassy.
Throughout the day, foreigners in the besieged capital flocked to the Aeroclub, a charter flight club where French soldiers were organizing evacuation flights.
The foreigners said Centreville, the downtown area where the heaviest fighting took place, was strewn with dead bodies, spent shells and shattered glass.
Near the Meridien, a luxury hotel, three bodies sprawled out of a bullet-riddled limousine, the foreigners said.
Aid workers with the British charity, Oxfam, were trapped in their Centreville office and at a nearby hotel.
``We can hear mortar rounds whistling as they land around the hotel,'' said engineer Richard Bartlett, contacted by satellite phone. ``It would only take one round to land too short and we would be hit.''
Most of the shooting, however, seemed limited to the warring sides firing on each other. Guests at the city's three luxury hotels said they had been robbed at gunpoint -- but otherwise were unharmed.
Rival fighters battled within 500 yards of the airport, forcing a brief halt to evacuation flights. The flights resumed after the French established radio contact with the fighting parties.
Shooting tapered off as planes lifted from the runway, a sign that neither side wanted to antagonize the French.
``They know if they attack us they will lose because we have the means to respond,'' said a French officer who, according to military regulations, could not give his name.
More than 700 foreigners have been evacuated from the airport, said the French Embassy's military spokesman, Alexis Jaraud.
Besides the evacuations carried out by France and the United States, the United Nations refugee agency evacuated another 62 people, and about 50 Chinese fled in two small aircraft to Kinshasa, just across the Congo River from Brazzaville.
At the Aeroclub, foreigners -- mostly French and from neighboring Congo -- filled deck chairs clustered around picnic tables. 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 the militia.
``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 neighboring Congo. They confiscated her papers and let her go.
French troops continued their mission Monday to reach civilians stranded by cross fire, but avoided the harder-hit neighborhoods.
``Parts of town are so dangerous we can't send our own people in,'' Jaraud said.
At least one French soldier has been killed since Thursday, struck down by gunfire while trying to guide civilians from a besieged neighborhood.
Violence erupted last week when government troops, fearing attempts to disrupt next month's presidential elections, tried to disarm members of Sassou-Nguesso's militia.
Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso are longtime rivals. 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.