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Escalation of Congo civil war forecast

U.S. Embassy closing as peace eludes mediators

June 17, 1997
Web posted at: 10:05 a.m. EDT (1405 GMT)

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (CNN) -- The battle for control of this capital city's airport was expected to escalate as a bloody power struggle led the United States on Tuesday to plan for the closing of its embassy and the withdrawal of personnel.

Supporters of Republic of Congo President Pascal Lissouba and his rival and predecessor, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, have engaged in political and ethnic fighting in Brazzaville for nearly two weeks.

3-day truce announced

On Tuesday, the warring parties agreed to a three-day truce that calls for a disengagement of troops around the Brazzaville airport to allow for the safe landing of commercial aircraft and aid supplies. The cease-fire also would allow French troops to conduct a withdrawal without having to fight their way out. Shortly after the cease-fire was announced, gunfire could still be heard in Brazzaville. Also Tuesday, the country's planned July 27 presidential election became the latest casualty of the bloody power struggle. Lissouba acknowledged that the elections could not take place on time as he had wished.

July elections 'not possible'

"The end of July will not be possible so long as people have arms. ... Conditions do not permit it," Lissouba told Radio France International, calling on officials to "fix another timetable." Sassou-Nguesso also said conditions were not ripe for elections, calling instead for "a good transition period" that would ultimately lead to "credible elections" organized by the international community.

Representatives of Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso held talks in Libreville, Gabon, for most of the day Monday but made no progress in ending the conflict through mediation.

Laurent Viguier, a diplomat at the French Embassy in Brazzaville, said more talks were planned at the French Embassy in Libreville on Tuesday.

Diplomats from the United Nations, the European Union and France were involved as mediators in the Gabon talks, as were the presidents of Gabon, Central African Republic, Chad and Mali; the prime minister of Equatorial Guinea; and Senegal's foreign minister.

French troops, U.S. personnel leaving

The two factions in the Republic of Congo's civil war were facing each other across Brazzaville airport, now controlled by French troops who have evacuated nearly 6,000 citizens of France and other countries.

When French soldiers -- who began a withdrawal on Monday -- complained that bullets falling on the airport complex were delaying their pullout, the fighting promptly subsided.

An all-out battle for the airport was expected once the French withdrawal is completed later this week.

smoke from gunfire

Col. Henri Pelissier, a French army spokesman, said the Congolese factions were signaling their intentions with the recent fighting. "We think each is telling the other: 'Be careful, it's not over,'" he said.

U.S. State Department officials told CNN the security of U.S. personnel in the country cannot be ensured once French forces are gone. Washington plans to have all U.S. Embassy staff out of the country by Wednesday.

An unknown number of U.S. Marines were at the Brazzaville airport on Tuesday to help carry out the withdrawal of embassy personnel.

Fighting erupted June 5 when the army surrounded Sassou-Nguesso's home in a crackdown on private militias and unauthorized arms prior to a presidential election scheduled for July 27.

Sassou-Nguesso, who ran the country as a dictator for a decade before Lissouba won an election, claimed the president sparked the clashes to have an excuse to delay the vote and keep power. Both men are running in the election.

Correspondent Catherine Bond and Reuters contributed to this report.

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