A dramatic French rescue in DRC 40 years ago


On May 19, 1978 French soldiers parachuted into the Democratic Republic of Congo town of Kolwezi to rescue hundreds of Europeans held by rebels who had already massacred several.

The operation that followed freed the 2,000 hostages - mostly French and Belgians working for a state mining company - but not before more than 120 Europeans and many more locals had been killed.

Here is a look back at the dramatic rescue mission 40 years ago, drawing from AFP's coverage.

'Hunt for Europeans'

On May 13 about 4 000 rebels from the National Liberation Front of the Congo (FLNC) storm into Kolwezi, a mining town on the southern border of the country then called Zaire.

The "Tigers" are seeking the secession of the Katanga mining-belt region that is rich in copper ore, uranium, zinc and cobalt.

Armed with heavy weapons, they quickly occupy strategic locations including the airport, a hospital and a school.

"In a half hour they had taken Kolwezi," Italian engineer Francois Postorino tells AFP.

As reports come in of pillaging and violence, Western powers are worried. "They are hunting for Europeans, particularly the French," says Belgian foreign minister Henri Simonet.

On May 16 a failed intervention by Zairian parachutists and rumours of a Western intervention spark bloody violence.

In three days more than 700 civilians, including more than 120 Europeans according to various accounts, are killed.

"I saw people being massacred; some had their legs chopped off, five of my friends are dead," says Pierre Tramoni, an employee at the state mining company Gecamines, after his evacuation.

"The wife of an engineer, three months pregnant, was killed," he says.

As the Belgian government hesitates, French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing decides on a solo military intervention, greenlighted by the United States and many African nations.

French troops parachute in

Operation Bonite is launched overnight May 17-18, mobilising French Foreign Legion parachutists based in Corsica.

Six hundred men take off for Kinshasa in five planes packed so full that they have to leave without their own parachutes, planning to use those of the Zaire army.

At dawn on May 19, after the French government cancels then confirms the operation, they fly out from Kinshasa to Kolwezi.

Limited space means only 400 legionnaires, with two days' worth of supplies, deploy.

Around 13:00, 400 white parachutes open up in the sky above Kolwezi.

Streets of carnage

The legionnaires head for the European neighbourhoods and discover dozens of decomposing and mutilated bodies in the streets.

Dogs feast on the cadavers, flies swarm over the flesh. The heat is unbearable.

Fighting is sporadic apart from at the gendarmerie and a technical school where the soldiers free 20 European hostages and two Zairian officers.

As the troops advance, haggard Europeans emerge from houses where they have been hiding for a week without water and often in the dark.

"Just a phrase or a gesture could have gotten us killed," Tramoni recalls.

Airlift to safety

By the next day the French forces have the town under control. At dawn more legionnaires arrive, followed by Belgian forces.

The repatriation of civilians via an airlift begins: more than 2 000 people are evacuated in two days.

US planes provide food supplies and transport weapons and heavy material between France and Zaire.

While the Belgian forces leave Kolwezi on May 23, the French parachutists stay to secure the city and its surrounding areas. The last leave by mid-June.

1 000 dead

The death toll for the Battle of Kolwezi is grim: at least 700 civilians, including 120 to 170 Europeans, five legionnaires, one Belgian parachutist and about 250 rebels.

The United States accuses Soviet-allied Cuba of training and arming the rebel army, claims Havana denies.

Giscard d'Estaing had said Operation Bonite aimed to "reestablish security" and "allow the protection of foreigners."

But its head, General Yves Gras, writes in a letter to Le Monde newspaper in 1981 that it had also been about "preventing Zaire from falling into the Soviet camp."

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