BUNIA, Congo – Hundreds of people cheered Friday as French troops arrived in northeastern Congo to prepare the way for a multinational force intended to stabilize a region wracked by tribal fighting.
Shouting "liberated, liberated," people from the town of Bunia (search) gathered outside the headquarters of the U.N. mission to Congo (search), as several dozen French troops showed up in camouflage jeeps to help quell fighting that has killed at least 500 people within the past month.
Leaders of the French contingent, accompanied by five British military officers, planned to meet with U.N. officials and members of the Hema tribal militia that controls the town.
More French troops are scheduled to arrive over the next 10 days, said Nana Rosine Ngangoue, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in the volatile region.
Earlier Friday, troops from special units of the French army, navy and air force streamed out of transport planes and took up defensive positions around the perimeter of Bunia airport, which will serve as their base.
"By the end of the day, there will be several dozen of us here at the airport," said the officer who identified himself as the commander of the advanced party but who declined to reveal his name, rank or unit.
The international force will reinforce 750 beleaguered U.N. troops from Uruguay whose mandate is to protect U.N. installations and personnel but not the local civilian population. U.N. troops are authorized to shoot only in self defense.
The international force is deploying troops under both United Nations and European Union mandates and will be authorized during its three-month mission to shoot to kill if necessary.
The French vanguard arrived in Bunia "to check the tactical situation on the ground, to check the geography, to check the state of the airstrip and to organize security for planes" that would bring the main force of up to 1,700 troops, said Col. Daniel Vollot (search), the commander of U.N. forces already in Bunia.
France will provide 1,000 troops and the force commander, Gen. Jean-Paul Thonier. The composition of the remainder of the force, which will not operate under U.N. command nor wear the hallmark blue helmets of U.N. peacekeepers, has not yet been confirmed. But it is expected to include troops from Canada, South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Pakistan.
Hema (search) and Lendu (search) tribal militias began fighting for control of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province, on May 7 after some 6,000 troops from neighboring Uganda (search) pulled out in accordance with a deal with the Congolese government intended to end the 4-year-old civil war in Africa's third-largest nation.
Tribal fighting over the past month has killed more than 500 people.