JUNE 28, 1994

Associated Press

GOMA, Zaire (AP) -- French commandos on Tuesday evacuated 43 nuns and orphans who were terrorized at a Rwandan [Roman Catholic] convent for weeks by young machete-wielding men staging mock executions.

The 35 nuns -- American, Belgian, British and Rwandan -- and eight adolescent girls had taken refuge in the convent in the western town of Kibuye when bloodletting started in early April between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis.

Soldiers of the Hutu-dominated government and extremist militias have massacred as many as 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis. Thousands in Kibuye who had sought shelter in the church and stadium were massacred, the nuns said.

Occasionally, the soldiers and militiamen would check on the nuns. "It was the mean people of the village, the young ones," said Sister Emma, a Tutsi.

Under the urging of Mother Superior Mary-Juliann, head of the Belgian-based Sisters of the Virgin Mary order and originally of Buffalo, New York, about 100 French commandos were dispatched to the convent Sunday.

The nuns were brought out at daybreak by road to a makeshift loading zone, then helicoptered to Goma, the Zairean town on the Rwandan border that serves as the command post for France's humanitarian intervention in Rwanda.

The evacuation was the first staged by the French since they started their military buildup last week.

Up to 2,500 French soldiers are to take part in a two-month mission France says is strictly humanitarian but which Tutsis distrust because of French support for Hutu-led government troops in recent years.

French Premier Edouard Balladur in a television interview Monday night offered new assurances that "Operation Turquoise" had no military objectives. But he did not hide the benefits.

"France wants to be a world power. ... And the first area of its intervention is Africa, especially French-speaking Africa," he said.

French Defense Minister Francois Leotard was to visit Goma and Bukavu, the other French border post in Zaire, on Wednesday. He was then to cross into Rwanda to inspect French patrols and meet with refugees and humanitarian organizations during the one-day visit, the Defense Ministry said.

About 1,400 French troops are in Rwanda already.

The nuns were hesitant to discuss their experiences, but a visitor to Kibuye said they had undergone several mock executions, with the militias putting them against a wall as if to shoot them.

"That went on until last week," said Sister Roberta Hesse, originally of Munster, Texas. She spent the past five days in the convent, sent from the order's seat in Namur, Belgium, to show solidarity.

The nuns were forbidden to leave their cloister. Night-time visits by militia squads and constant stories of massacres kept them in a state of permanent fright.

The operation was a media coup for the French, who alerted the press 12 hours in advance to be at the airport.

French reconnaissance patrols have been having mixed success in finding refugees in daily penetrations from Zaire.