As tens of thousands of troops from rival Congolese militia skirmished in the northeastern province of Ituri and the death toll from the week-long spasm of violence rose past 160, the French government indicated it was preparing to respond to a call by the secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, to send troops to quell the disturbances before they escalated further.
But French diplomats here took pains to point out that Annan's recent appeal was to all 15 Security Council members. Annan reinforced that point yesterday. "It was not a request only to France," he said. "It was a request to governments with capacity."
Annan further added that "France has indicated in principle that it is prepared to participate in such a force, provided there is a clear mandate, and other governments join in. So we are in touch with other governments trying to see if they will join France in such an effort."
About 700 Uruguayan troops are in the embattled city of Bunia as part of a peacekeeping operation. A Council diplomat said Monday that an additional contingent of Bangladeshi troops is expected to reinforce them.
Calls for international attention to this newly virulent killing ground in the Congolese wars escalated on Tuesday. Pope John Paul II said that the recent killings -- including the deaths of two Catholic priests and 48 others who took refuge in a church in the town of Bunia over the weekend -- were "profoundly disturbing."
Echoing the warnings that came from UN diplomats on Monday, the Vatican statement said, "We risk a tragedy like the one in Rwanda in 1994."
Carla Del Ponte, the prosecutor of the UN War Crimes tribunals, picking her words carefully, said to reporters at the UN yesterday that "From what we know," the killings in Ituri "could be a genocide."
A genocide, she and aides said, is marked not just by its scope but by the essential fact that victims are chosen for their race.
Militias from the Lendu and Hema groups have been battling for control of Bunia since Ugandan military forces pulled out, with the last troops leaving May 7. Patricia Tome, a UN spokeswoman on the scene, was quoted in news services on Monday as describing fighting as near as 200 yards to UN bases in Bunia, where thousands of civilians have taken refuge.
"As we speak, they're using their artillery, mortars." she said.
Annan said yesterday that the UN has "asked the Ugandan government to cooperate and use its influence in the region to ensure that the militia and the people in the region restrain themselves and do not escalate tensions in the region."