BUNIA, Congo — An advance party of French troops arrived here to cheers from residents Friday in the first deployment of a 1,400-strong rapid reaction force to stop bloodletting among rival militias.
Residents were relieved.
"It's what we have been waiting for," teacher Dieudonne Macheka said.
"People are waiting for the forces to arrive so they can leave their hiding places."
The United Nations says that 500 civilians have been massacred in inter-ethnic fighting in and around the northeastern town of Bunia in the last month and that 50,000 have been killed since 1999.
A 700-strong U.N. mission is in the region, but its mandate is limited and militias linked to the Hema and Lendu tribes have killed hundreds despite the U.N. presence.
Militiamen from both sides, often drugged or drunk, have raped, looted and forced thousands of civilians from Bunia, a dilapidated settlement of more than 200,000 people near the border with Uganda.
Hundreds of residents outside a U.N. base in central Bunia cheered and clapped, shouting, "Take courage!" and "Free us!" as French troops drove in from the airport.
"The new force should be different from [U.N. troops] because it has a mandate that should allow it to intervene," Macheka said. "They can act with force if faced with resistance. That's why we have more confidence in them."
Two planeloads of French soldiers with reconnaissance vehicles and light weapons flew in shortly after dawn. Soldiers said about 100 troops had arrived.
"Our main mission in the coming days is to secure the airport in liaison with [U.N. troops] on the ground and to get our deployment ready," said the senior officer of the French soldiers, who declined to give his name.
A number of British soldiers landed Friday ahead of a possible larger force. Bunia is largely quiet, but unconfirmed reports say rebels are still carrying out executions.
The United Nations Security Council approved the deployment, which will include about 1,000 French troops, backed by fighter jets based in the region.
Other European Union nations and countries such as Canada and South Africa also are contributing troops. The mission will end Sept. 1.
In Berlin, Germany's junior foreign minister, Kerstin Mueller, said the mission also needed a broader political settlement.
"If it isn't flanked by a political process in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, it won't produce anything," she told reporters.
Bunia's main militia, the Rwandan-backed Hema Union of Patriotic Congolese, is expected to hand over control of the town once the force completes its deployment.
U.N. officials say the militia wants to keep its fighters in the town to protect Hema leaders. It is unclear whether this will be acceptable to the French-led force.
The country's wider war, now subsiding, began in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda invaded to help rebels fight the government, which was backed by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.