“The Chechen Network” on Trial: Terrorist Prosecutions in Paris

Andrew McGregor

May 4, 2006

Modern France has a long history of dealing with terrorists, whether the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late 19th century or the more sophisticated Corsicans, Basques and Islamists of the late 20th century. As the republic enters the 21st century, it finds itself grappling with an Islamist threat that reflects the nation’s changing demographics. Five to six million residents of France are now Muslim—a full 10 percent of the population. Aside from a substantial number of Muslim West Africans, most French Muslims hail from former French provinces in North Africa. Algeria is home to many of France’s most radical Islamists, a country that has endured fifteen years of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, massacres and civil strife.

chechen network 1Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière (Le Monde)

French authorities have adopted an aggressive campaign to pre-empt terrorist strikes. Expanded counter-terrorism measures have been matched with wide-scale roundups of French Muslims, who may now be held for six days without charges and up to four years without trial. Although nearly all France’s terrorism suspects are French-born or North African in origin, the republic’s leading investigator of terrorist cases suggests that the most dangerous threat to France and Europe comes from an elusive and mysterious source: “the Chechen Network.”

Terrorists on Trial

Twenty-seven North Africans were brought to trial in Paris on March 20, 2006, on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the Eiffel Tower and numerous other targets. Investigators allege that Russian institutions in France were also targeted by the Islamist militants as retaliation for the destruction of the Chechen terrorist unit at Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theater in October 2002. The actual charge against the defendants is “criminal conspiracy in relation to a terrorist network,” which carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment on conviction. Several of the suspects are alleged to have served in the small corps of international mujahideen in Chechnya. Many appear to be former members of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) or GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), militant Algerian Islamist organizations responsible for numerous atrocities. A French security service, La Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, uncovered the so-called “Chechen Network” while investigating Islamist efforts to recruit French nationals for the fighting in Chechnya. Mass arrests of North Africans followed in the Paris suburbs of Courneuve and Romainville in December 2002.

The man behind the prosecutions is Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière. In France, judges may act as investigators, with those suspects recommended for prosecution sent before other judges for trial. Judge Bruguière began work in terrorism investigations in 1991, and is now responsible for the coordination of all judicial aspects in France’s battle against terrorism. Bruguière and others have aggressively used the generous powers provided to them by the new anti-terrorism legislation to cast wide nets in the Muslim community, collecting large numbers of suspects. Many of the accused have been acquitted after lengthy periods of detention.

The Case of Said Arif

Said Arif, 41, is a former officer in the Algerian army and one of the defendants in the “Chechen Network” case. After deserting the army he traveled to Afghanistan, where he is said to have attended al-Qaeda training camps. Mr. Arif and several other suspects are accused of taking additional training in the production of chemical and biological weapons in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, allegedly under the tutelage of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when the career criminal was still being described as a bio-chemical weapons expert (al-Zarqawi is now leader of the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq). No evidence has been presented to substantiate the existence of such training facilities, and even the presence of al-Zarqawi in the Pankisi Gorge remains open to question. There was undoubtedly training available in the creation of more conventional explosive devices while Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev rebuilt his guerilla force in the Gorge in 2001-2002. Some 200 foreign mujahideen were present in Gelayev’s camps. Many were Turkish nationals, while the Arab contingent included a number of Algerians. It is these individuals that the prosecution charges with returning to France to carry out acts of terrorism.

chechen network 2Said Arif (Le Point)

Already suspected of involvement in the December 2000 plot to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market, Arif escaped the December 2002 roundup of al-Qaeda suspects accused of preparing chemical attacks in France. In May 2003, Arif and his wife (a Swedish national) moved with their children to Syria. Two months later Arif was picked up on the street by Syrian intelligence services. His family was first detained then deported to Sweden. Arif alleges he was tortured in Syria before being extradited to Paris in June 2004. The procedure was unusual, in that Syria has no extradition treaty with France. The extradition may have been the result of a personal visit to Syria by Judge Bruguière.

France allowed members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to question the suspects before trial, as part of a joint investigation between Russian and French security services. Mr. Arif has also attracted the attention of the Spanish secret services. Arif is said to have revealed to Spanish investigators a plan to carry out a chemical attack on the US naval base in Rota, Spain (Spanish Herald, May 4, 2005). Arif’s lawyer has called for the rejection of any evidence based on testimony elicited from his client under torture in Syria. A verdict in the trial is expected on May 12.

The ‘Chechen Threat’

The term “Chechen” figures in almost every reference to the current case. Judge Bruguière and others speak of “the Chechen Network,” while their detractors refer to it as “the Chechen Trace.” Judge Bruguière claims that Chechnya serves as the main training base for Islamist militants, having replaced Afghanistan in this regard. Bruguière describes the “Caucasian problem” as “a true international problem because the majority of the Chechen cause has been hijacked by al-Qaeda” (AP, December 9, 2004). According to the judge, Chechnya serves as “an aircraft carrier” for Islamists “to continue the fight against the West” (CNN, May 13, 2003). At times Bruguière ascribes to the Chechen rebels powers worthy of a James Bond villain; in 2004 he told the New Yorker magazine that Chechens were training Islamists how to hijack satellites, enabling them to shut down communications, power grids and Western defense networks (New Yorker, August 2, 2004).

Judge Bruguière’s emphasis on the Chechen aspect of the current trial has filtered down to the media. An Associated Press headline announced “Chechen Rebel Trial Opens in Paris” (March 21, 2006), even though not a single Chechen is among the accused. Olivier Dupuis, an outspoken member of the European Parliament, has questioned Judge Bruguière’s continued use of the term “Chechen network” in a case involving only EU citizens. The MP asks whether such “false information” might be “responsible for the growth among EU citizens of feelings of racial hatred, intolerance or even violence towards Chechen refugees living in member countries.”


There is no question that France faces a serious terrorism threat from North African extremists, but Judge Bruguière’s persistent obsession with Chechnya as an exporter of terrorism to Europe remains difficult to explain. Europe is now awash with Chechen refugees, yet none have been convicted of terrorist plots against their hosts. The Pankisi Gorge came under the control of US-trained Georgian security forces in October 2002. The Chechen separatist leadership is intent on expanding its rebellion to the rest of the Russian North Caucasus, but otherwise has expressed more interest in joining Europe than destroying it. Arab participation in the Chechen war is also at a low ebb, with jihadists from France and elsewhere being drawn to the far more accessible conflict in Iraq.

Short of new evidence being introduced at the trial, the actual Chechen content of France’s “Chechen Network” appears to be nil. A recent French security review described the greatest threats to national security as coming from young, alienated Muslim youth and converts to radical forms of Islam such as Lionel Dumont, a former French Catholic who became one of Europe’s most wanted terrorists before being sentenced to 30 years in prison by a French court in December 2005. With Algeria’s ruthless militants now identifying France as their main enemy, the continuing focus on a shadowy Chechen threat would appear to be a dangerous distraction for French security.

This article first appeared in the May 4, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Chechnya Weekly

The Chinese Siege of the French Fortress at Tuyen Quang, Tonkin, Vietnam, 1885

Andrew McGregor

Military History Quarterly 17(1), Autumn 2004, pp. 52-61.

Trading the sands of North Africa for the jungles of Tonkin, French Foreign Legionnaires and Vietnamese riflemen fought off waves of Chinese attackers for thirty-six days in 1885 at remote Tuyen Quang.

Siège de Tuyên Quang (1884-1885), by Hippolyte Charlemagne

Tired and bloodied, a long relief column of French troops snaked its way through the thick Tonkinese jungle late on the afternoon of March 3, 1885. As the soldiers emerged into a large clearing surrounding a battered fortress, their senses were overcome by a gruesome spectacle. One officer recalled, “All the approaches – churned, blasted, lamentable – were covered with corpses and the carrion rotted in the air.” The column had reached its destination: Tuyen Quang, where a small garrison mainly composed of Foreign Legionnaires had been battling as many as twenty-four thousand Chinese attackers since January 26.

Commerce and religion had drawn France to Vietnam in the first half of the nineteenth century. The persecution of Christian missionaries there resulted in French military intervention in the form of several clashes on land and sea in the 1840s. France was also envious of recent British success in gaining access to lucrative Chinese markets, and hoped to open up Southeast Asia to French trade and gain access to China via northern Vietnam. The Vietnamese emperor, who ruled from Hué, was well aware of France’s colonial intentions. According to an 1848 imperial commission report:

These barbarians are very firm and patient; the works they have not been able to complete they hand on to their posterity to bring forth to completion. They relinquish no undertaking and are disturbed at no difficulties… These barbarians enter every land with neither fear nor weariness; they conquer all peoples, regardless of expense… They pretend to seek commercial freedom, but actually this is the means to spread their dark and monstrous errors. They are interested but little in commerce, but under its guise seek to render futile the laws of the empire… These men, akin to sheep and dogs by their manners, cannot be persuaded by the language of reason; reason to them is the voice of the cannon. In the art of making the cannon speak, they are extremely clever!

Continued persecution of Christians led to more clashes in the 1850s that culminated with the French capture (with Spanish assistance) of Tourane (present-day Da Nang) in 1858 and the occupation of Saigon in southern Vietnam the following year. Over the next few years the French expanded their hold over southern Vietnam. They referred to that region as Cochin China, to central Vietnam as Annam, and to the north as Tonkin. In 1862 the imperial court reluctantly ceded several provinces of Cochin China to France, which also gained a protectorate over Cambodia the next year, and during the next several years extended its control to include all of southern Vietnam.

China, however, had regarded Vietnam as part of the Celestial Empire for more than a thousand years. Initially the French were encouraged by the lack of Chinese protests to their advances in Cochin China and to an 1874 treaty between France and Vietnam that declared the remainder of the country “independent of all foreign powers” while giving France concessions in Tonkin’s Haiphong and Hanoi. It seems that the Chinese leadership failed to grasp that the French regarded the treaty as ending Vietnam’s tributary relationship with its northern neighbor. The French interpretation was apparently also misunderstood by the imperial court in Hué, which continued its former relationship with China.

Black Flag leader Liu Yung-fu

During this period, Tonkin was wracked by fighting that at one time or another pitted Chinese, Vietnamese and Montagnards (the indigenous people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands) against each other. An army of Chinese brigands known as the Black Flags emerged as the most ruthless and successful of the combatants. The fighters were led by Liu Yung-fu, who, although illiterate, was widely regarded as a formidable strategist. He had turned bandit in southeastern China’s Guangxi Province during the chaotic days of the Taiping rebellion in the 1850s, and before long Liu had thousands of followers who swore allegiance to him before a black flag.

After crossing the Vietnamese border with his followers, Liu ingratiated himself with the local authorities by defeating the defiant Montagnard tribesmen of north Tonkin. The Black Flags, with the blessing of Chinese and Vietnamese officials, then began a long campaign against a rival brigand band, the Yellow Flags. In 1875, after more than five years of fighting, the Black Flags emerged victorious. Liu’s forces were now the foremost military power in Tonkin.

Over the next several years, France became increasingly concerned about the security of its concessions in Hanoi and Haiphong and frustrated by its inability to make further inroads in opening Tonkin’s Red River to trade. Then in 1882 French naval Captain Henri Laurent Rivière arrived in Hanoi at the head of several hundred troops sent as reinforcements for the concession there. Disobeying his explicit orders, he stormed and captured the city’s citadel on April 25.

Rivière, having seized northern Vietnam’s seat of government, soon found himself unable to expand his hold in Tonkin and was virtually cut off in Hanoi. Vietnamese authorities turned to the Black Flags, and a steady stream of their troops, as well as other Chinese fighters, poured into the countryside around Hanoi. Liu expressed his opinion of the French occupiers in an invective-filled ultimatum:

You French brigands live by violence in Europe and glare out on all the world like tigers, seeking for a place to exercise your craft and cruelty. Where there is land you lick your chops for lust of it; where there are riches you would fain lay hands on them. You send out teachers of religion to undermine and ruin the people. You say you wish for international commerce, but you merely wish to swallow up the country. There are no bounds to your cruelty, and there is no name for your wickedness. You trust in your strength, and you debauch our women and our youth. Surely this excites the indignation of gods and men, and is past the endurance of heaven and earth… If you own that you are no match for us; if you acknowledge that you carrion Jews are only fit to grease the edge of our blades; if you would still remain alive, then behead your leaders, bring their heads to my official abode, leave our city, and return to your foul lairs.

Rivière’s forces had been besieged in Hanoi for about eleven months when the ambitious captain was killed in May 1883 during an operation to loosen the Chinese grip around the city. France promptly used his death to step up its efforts to subdue all of Vietnam. In August, French warships bombarded Hué and landed troops nearby. The emperor immediately called for a cease-fire and reluctantly signed a treaty allowing France to establish protectorates over Tonkin and Annam. The Chinese, however, explicitly rejected the treaty’s terms.

Algerian “Turcos” and fusiliers-marins (armed sailors) at Bắc Ninh, 1884.

As part of France’s redoubled efforts, the Foreign Legion’s 1st Battalion arrived at Haiphong Harbor in November 1883 intent on suppressing the Black Flags and expelling the Chinese from Tonkin. The unit did not have to wait long to see action, successfully storming the well-defended Black Flag stronghold at Son Tay on December 16, 1883. After being reinforced by the 2nd Battalion in February 1884, the legionnaires occupied the former Chinese fort at Bac Ninh in March. Two months later, China agreed to withdraw its forces from northern Vietnam and it appeared that the French conquest of Tonkin was complete.

That impression, however, was shattered when a French column en route to occupy Lang Son (in northern Tonkin) attacked but was repulsed by a Chinese garrison that had remained behind. To punish China, France embarked on an ambitious two-front war. One French force was to invade the Chinese island of Formosa, while a second was to reinforce troops already in Tonkin that would then pacify the Red River Delta and extend French control farther inland.

Like many colonial conflicts of the time, the ensuing war was presented to the French public as a series of flag-plantings, bugle calls and triumphant bayonet charges. The reality, of course, was much harsher. In fact, France never officially declared war against China; according to international law, doing so would have prevented French ships from refueling at the neutral ports of Ceylon, Singapore, and Hong Kong and thus would have completely disrupted supply lines. The Chinese likewise did not declare war, as they were awaiting military supplies ordered in Europe, and a declaration of war would have resulted in the contracts’ suspension.

The conflict in Tonkin was an especially brutal one from the beginning and was played out in unforgiving jungle and heavily wooded limestone mountains. It was a war without quarter. Chinese and Vietnamese prisoners were regularly executed, and French prisoners could expect to be decapitated, with their heads pickled in brine before being exhibited as trophies. The French were also known to display the severed heads of enemy combatants in an effort to weaken Chinese resistance. The two sides plundered and raped the helpless population, both in victory and in defeat.

Black Flag fighters

The Tonkin war also fired up the prejudices of the participants as well as observers. The Chinese and native Vietnamese were particularly shocked by their introduction to French colonial troops, especially those from North Africa. According to the Black Flags’ Liu Yung-fu, “You [the French] set black devils to plunder and ravage a defenseless population, more cruelly than the vilest of bandits.” A British reporter alluded to the alleged rapacity of the North Africans: “The bestiality of the Turcos [Algerians] is not to be laid, perhaps, at the French door, except that if the French introduce such animals into a country they ought to muzzle them.” Answering charges of French brutality, French writer Pierre Loti noted: “After all, in the Far East, to destroy is the first law of war. And then, when one comes with but a handful of men to subjugate an immense country, the enterprise is so adventurous that one must spread much terror, under penalty of perishing one’s self.”

Initially France relied on Foreign Legionnaires and troops of the Ministère de la Marine (Naval Ministry) for the combat component of its expeditionary force in Vietnam. The Foreign Legion of the 1880s was largely composed of men from the former French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. Also, Germans were well represented, as were Belgians, though many of the latter were actually Frenchmen evading the prohibition on the enlistment of native French in the legion by pretending to be French-speaking Belgian Walloons. The geographic contrast was stark between the legion’s normal sunny and wind-swept posts of North Africa and the humid bush of Tonkin, where one could often not see through the thick jungle more than a few feet ahead. The soldiers of the Legion, however, proved remarkably adaptable – more so, in fact, than their officers, who persisted in sacrificing their men (and themselves) in European battlefield tactics.

Tirailleurs Tonkinois

Tropical uniforms were slow in arriving, and the typical French soldier on the march carried an absurd amount of equipment. By 1883 France had begun recruiting militia in Cochin China and Christian convert auxiliaries in Tonkin. Legionnaire Charles Martyn complained of the native north Vietnamese light infantry serving with the French, the Tirailleurs Tonkinois: “It is beneath the dignity of these warriors to carry anything beyond their arms and ammunition, so our column presented the strange spectacle of natives of the country loafing along at their ease while we Europeans were loaded up like pedlars’ asses.”

“Loaded up like pedlars’ asses”: A Legionnaire on the march in Indo-China.

Ironically, by 1883 the Black Flags were armed with modern repeating rifles of European and American make, including Remingtons, Spencers, Winchesters and Martini-Henrys, while France’s troops made do with outdated single-shot Model 1874 Gras rifles. Fortunately for the French, many of the Chinese and brigands seemed to entirely misunderstand the principle of their weapons, firing at an upward angle in order to “drop” bullets onto their enemy. There was a widespread opinion in the French camp that Chinese troops had a special distaste for the Gras’ fearsome twenty-one inch bayonet blade. The bayonet charge thus became a staple of Foreign Legion warfare in Indochina. Overconfidence in this tactic (often ordered without artillery support) would cost many legionnaires their lives during the following years.

The Chinese, despite their weaponry, must have presented an unmilitary appearance to the Europeans. According to a French officer: “Some had a black garment decorated in blue, others a black garment with red borders, others a garment in iron-gray, a certain number wore an all-red costume, others a sky-blue costume; finally a group wore a sort of dark-blue smock. These last are without doubt some Black Flags.” The Black Flags had also readopted the Manchu pigtails (abandoned in China during the Taiping rebellion) and typically wore the broad conical straw hat of southern China and Vietnam.

In May 1884 French forces, extending control toward Tonkin’s highlands, occupied a Chinese-built square fort at Tuyen Quang, on the west bank of the Clear River, a tributary of the Red River. The area’s generally low-lying ground was accented by many rounded, steep-sided hillocks that the French called mamelons (nipples). One of these distinctive hills, seventy meters in height, was enclosed within the four three-hundred meter long by three-meter high walls of the fortress and provided an excellent observation point. The areas was also full of multi-storied pagodas, several of which lay within the brick walls of the citadel. A group of small pagodas surmounted the fort’s mamelon and served as quarters for the French officers. A small village of about one hundred Vietnamese peasants was located four hundred meters downstream from the citadel.

Disease soon started taking a toll on the small garrison, and in October French patrols began clashing with bands of Black Flags. Before long, thousands of the brigands were deploying in the jungles surrounding Tuyen Quang. The next month, the garrison was reinforced by the arrival of the 1st and 2nd companies of the Legion’s 1st Foreign Regiment, along with a company of freshly raised Tirailleurs Tonkinois, gunners of the Artillerie de la Marine to man a section of four small cannons, a detachment of eight sappers from the 4th Engineers, and the dozen sailors from the small gunboat Mitrailleuse, which was anchored off the citadel. Altogether, the garrison then numbered 619 men, 390 of whom were Foreign Legionnaires. Ammunition supplies were meager, but six month’s-worth of foodstuffs were on hand.

The legionnaires initially viewed the Tirailleurs with skepticism, and the latter were settled in a small pagoda-centered camp abutting the south corner of the fort. One member of the garrison recalled: “They had no drill to speak of, and they were dressed in a most hideous streaky blue uniform, with a singular ugly red, white and blue-tipped bamboo, soup-tureen like hat. The number of their company, sewed in red tape on a white oval on the left chest, dealt the final blow at any hopes they might have had of presenting a soldier-like appearance.” Moreover, several companies of the Tirailleurs had deserted earlier in 1884, taking their weapons and ammunition with them. Though the French troops initially deprecated them, referring to the north Vietnamese soldiers as bashi-bazouks – a reference to the Turkish army’s undisciplined irregular troops – the Tirailleurs soon displayed the endurance, marching ability, aggressiveness and steadiness under fire that would later bedevil French and US armies in the twentieth century.

Marc-Edmond Dominé (1848–1920), the commander of the Tuyen Quang garrison.

The garrison’s commander, thirty-seven year old Major Marc-Edmond Dominé, was a veteran officer of the hard-fighting Bataillions d’Afrique (known as the Bats d’Af), North African penal units in which conscripted and heavily tattooed ex-convicts could redeem themselves by performing the most hazardous battlefield tasks. Dominé quickly set his men to work building additional fortifications. A former journalist, twenty-five year old Sergeant Jule Bobillot of the 4th Engineers oversaw the construction of a bamboo palisade that surrounded the fort, as well as trenches, dugouts and earthworks in the strongpoint. A large mamelon three hundred meters west of the fort was judged a threat to the security of the citadel if occupied by the Black Flags, so Dominé ordered the talented Bobillot and his sappers to construct a fortified blockhouse on its summit. With the help of seventy legionnaires, the engineers completed the blockhouse in only six days.

For a time the garrison was able to stockpile supplies brought in on river junks escorted by French colonial troops. The last convoy arrived on December 20 and carried the all-important wine that French armies lived on at the time.

In January 1885 a twelve-thousand-man army of Chinese regulars from the southeastern province of Yunnan reinforced the thousands of Black Flag troops outside Tuyen Quang. The Yunnanese soldiers were expert in the construction of earthworks and field fortifications and in mine warfare, all learned by the province’s miners who had fought on both sides of the Muslim rebellion in their home province during the 1860s. These troops quickly set to work digging an intricate system of trenches that crept ever closer to the citadel, as well as building earthworks to defend against any force attempting to relieve Tuyen Quang.

A fanciful depiction of the Siege of Tuyen Quang – The pristine Legionnaires wear North African dress uniforms rather than tropical kit. The Black Flags are similarly outfitted like wealthy mandarins. Loose-fitting black clothes comprised the most common Black Flag “uniform” and bayonets were not a normal part of their weaponry.

On January 26, Liu launched the first concerted attacks on the French positions. After torching the Vietnamese village, troops assaulted the blockhouse and the bamboo palisades erected outside the walls of the citadel. In a typical Blag Flag onslaught, the attackers rushed forward screaming, banging gongs and cymbals, blowing trumpets and waving numerous banners. Three columns of three hundred men each advanced on the blockhouse, which was defended by only eighteen soldiers under the command of Sergeant Libert of the Foreign Legion. Two of the columns were quickly driven off by shell fire from the Mitrailleuse and rifle fire from the blockhouse and the citadel, but the third group of attackers was more tenacious and only fell back after the French opened up with their small cannons.

The fierce fight and the hundreds of enemy campfires visible at night on the hills surrounding Tuyen Quang alerted the garrison to its desperate predicament. No mercy could be expected from the Chinese, so surrender was out of the question. Virtually cut off from the outside world, the garrison resorted to tossing messages stuffed in bottles or bamboo tubes into the Clear River in the hope that they might make it to their comrades downstream.

A more realistic view of the battle, from a contemporary French postcard.

By the end of January, Dominé found it necessary to abandon the blockhouse after discovering the Chinese had tunnelled under it, where they were likely preparing to ignite a mine. A small French victory was earned when its garrison crossed the three hundred meters of no man’s land to the fort with the loss of only one soldier. Surrendering the mamelon was a severe blow as it allowed the Chinese to extend their entrenchments around the west corner of the citadel without having to worry about fire from their rear. The Black Flags were also able to deploy some outdated Krupp cannons on the mamelon which they had hauled through the jungle on the backs of elephants. The garrison was soon taking daily losses from a constant artillery bombardment.

While the Legionnaires and tirailleurs were battling for their lives at Tuyen Quang, French reinforcements had arrived in eastern Tonkin. The fresh troops allowed General Louis-Alexandre Brière de l’Isle, commander of France’s forces in the province, to launch a campaign to clear the northern route through Lang Son to the “Gates of China,” a narrow defile along the mountainous border. His column of about nine thousand soldiers set out on February 3.

Meanwhile, outside Tuyen Quang, the Yunnanese sappers devoted their labors to the citadel’s southwest wall, once protected by flanking fire from the blockhouse. Mines were run up right against the wall, but Bobillot’s small group of engineers dug counter-mines. At one point a group of French sappers unintentionally broke through into a Chinese tunnel, sparking a short firefight in the dark between the two surprised parties. By February 5, Chinese troops had crossed the river and from the east bank began a steady fire that made life uncomfortable in the tirailleurs’ camp and aboard the Mitrailleuse.

On the morning of February 5, the garrison beheld a peculiar sight when a Chinese soldier wearing a mask covered in charms and amulets came close to the citadel walls and planted a flag. The act was certainly a type of ritual designed to weaken the garrison; despite his strategic skills, Liu was prey to almost every form of superstition. A lieutenant and several of his men along the wall used a rope noose attached to a bamboo pole too snag the banner and were pulling it into the citadel when two Chinese soldiers attempted to save the flag, only to be shot dead.

At 5:45 AM on February 12, a thunderous explosion shook the early dawn as a one-hundred-kilogram mine placed by the Yunnanese against the base of the fortress exploded. Thousands of Black Flags poured out of their trenches and rushed toward the breach, but sheets of deadly rifle fire forced the attackers to withdraw. A simultaneous assault on the tirailleurs camp was also driven off.

Another mine explosion followed the next night, this time toppling a section of wall near the west corner of the citadel. Again thousands of Chinese rushed for the opening, and one even managed to plant his flag at the summit of the breach. The legionnaires and tirailleurs poured heavy rifle fire into the opening and dead and wounded attackers began falling into the mine’s crater, making it difficult for those behind to pass through the breach in the wall. The Foreign Legion counter-attacked, and for a time bitter hand-to-hand fighting raged for control of the gap before the Black Flags broke off their assaults. The garrison had repulsed another attack, but there was no time to rest, as new bamboo palisades needed to be built to fill the gaps in the citadel’s defenses.

On the night of February 15, the Chinese again assaulted the fort’s weakened west corner. Sergeant Beulin gathered twenty-five volunteers and drove off the Chinese with a furious bayonet charge in which four legionnaires were killed. Although the garrison managed to beat off successive attacks, the citadel was being demolished bit by bit. To bolster the crumbling fortifications, Dominé assigned forty Legion volunteers to form permanent, rotating work parties under the command of Sergeant Bobillot. On the eighteenth, however, the garrison suffered a critical loss when Bobillot was mortally wounded. In his journal entry for the day, Dominé also noted the loss of three large barrels of wine to shrapnel.

A statue of Sergeant Bobillot was erected in Paris but was melted down by German occupation forces in 1942.

Liu soon resumed his tactic of blowing a breach in the fort’s walls and then launching waves of attackers in an attempt to storm through the opening. On the twenty-second, Captain Cattelin saved his men from destruction by moving them away from the wall they were defending when he heard the screams, gongs and trumpets that preceded a Chinese attack. The subsequent mine explosion breached the wall but resulted in few casualties.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Moulinay, commander of the 1st Company, then moved his legionnaires into the opening to repel the expected attack, but the Chinese had cunningly planted a second mine which detonated and killed Moulinay and a dozen of his men and wounded thirty others. The Chinese then launched their clamorous assault. Tuyen Quang’s defenders were nevertheless able to rally, and with rifle fire and the points of their bayonets turned back the attackers.

The legionnaires and tirailleurs earned only a brief respite. During an assault two days later, a group of Chinese battled their way into the fort and fought off two French counterattacks before Capatin Cattelin arrived with his reserves, driving off the enemy a la baïonnette. By month’s end, the French had only 180 working rifles, and Chinese mines and artillery had reduced more than 10 percent of the citadel’s walls to rubble. The last day of February saw some of the gravest fighting of the siege, with more mine explosions and massed Chinese attacks against the gaping breaches in the French position. But again and again the exhausted garrison was somehow able to muster the energy and firepower to repel the assaults.

During the siege Major Dominé had been trying to summon help for the beleaguered garrison. Vietnamese laborers carrying messages about the command’s desperate plight had been quietly slipping out of the fort and through the enemy’s lines. Against all odds, one of the messengers had returned to the fort on February 25 with news that a three-thousand man column led by General Brière de l’Isle was advancing to the garrison’s relief.

French Marines (colonial infantry) and Algerian tirailleurs (riflemen) take Lang Son. In reality, the decisive battle for Lang Son was fought at nearby Bac Vie in a heavy fog.

The French commander’s northern expedition had routed a Chinese army that had crossed into northern Vietnam from Guangxi province on February 13, and after entering Lang Son unopposed his troops pushed on to the Gates of China, where they blew up the stone entrance to the fortified defile. Brière de l’Isle then received word of the Tuyen Quang garrison’s plight. Leaving General François-Marie-Casimir de Négrier in charge of the bulk of his troops, de l’Isle hurried south at the head of the relief force.

A more realistic depiction of the battle at Bac Vie. The Algerians took heavy losses in the victory.

The Black Flags made his march as difficult as possible. Chinese resistance was especially stiff seven miles south of Tuyen Quang, at Hoa-Moc, where the Black Flags had thrown up earthworks. Arriving there on May 2, the relief column drove out the defenders with concentrated artillery fire and a bayonet charge, though at great cost. In fact, more French troops died in the battle than fell during the entire siege of Tuyen Quang. In total, the relief column suffered some five hundred casualties en route to the fort.

With the Black Flags’ defeat at Hoa-Moc, Liu reluctantly concluded that he must end his siege of Tuyen Quang. Thant night his forces silently retreated northward. The next morning, the cratered corpse-covered fields surrounding the fort and the outlying jungle were eerily silent. A patrol of legionnaires led by Captain de Borelli went out to investigate and discovered that the six miles of Chinese trenches that laced around the fort were apparently deserted. At least one group of Yunnanese regulars, however, had remained behind. When the patrol drew near, one of the Chinese soldiers rose up and fired a shot at de Borelli, whose life was saved by one of his legionnaires who threw himself in front of his captain and was fatally wounded.

De Borelli was so moved by the soldier’s selfless act, as well as by the sacrifice of all his legionnaires who fell at Tuyen Quang, that he later wrote an emotional poem dedicated “To my men who are dead, in particular to the memory of Thiebald Streibler who gave his life for mine, the 3rd of March, 1885, Siege of Tuyen Quang.”

Late that day, the relief column finally arrived at the battered fortress. Although appalled at the sight and stench of hundreds of rotting corpses covering the battlefield, the recently arrived soldiers must have been filled with admiration as the heroic garrison stood at attention and saluted them. Of the original 619 defenders, about fifty were dead and two hundred wounded. Sergeant Bobillot would die of his wounds in a Hanoi hospital on March 18.

General de Négrier, meanwhile, had become aware that the Chinese were building up forces on the other side of the Gates of China, and he launched an offensive across the border that the enemy repulsed. The French fell back on Lang Son, which was soon attacked. When de Négrier was seriously wounded, command fell to Colonel Paul Herbinger, who immediately ordered a retreat to the Red River Delta. In the army’s flight, Herbinger ordered all artillery, equipment and even the regimental funds to be discarded. While the French campaign in Formosa had drained manpower and resources and reached a dead end, the debacle at Lang Son was so poorly received in Paris that Prime Minister Jules Ferry was forced to resign.

With the Chinese again on the offensive, French diplomats hastened to fashion an armistice, which was signed on April 4, 1885. By terms of the agreement (and the following treaty of June 11), the Black Flags and the Chinese army were ordered to return to China in exchange for the French abandoning their designs on the Pescadores Islands and Formosa. Somehow France had turned a string of military defeats into Chinese acknowledgement of French sovereignty over Tonkin. The Vietnamese, who had not been consulted, did not accept the new state of affairs, and their subsequent revolt took the French fifteen years to repress, despite using measures of the utmost brutality.

In the aftermath of the siege of Tuyen Quang the courage of the brave legionnaires who defended the citadel was widely extolled in France (with little mention of the Tirailleurs Tonkinois who had fought with them). But while the defenders’ courage was toasted in the cafés of Paris, the Chinese were also celebrating what they regarded as their victory over the French. Although they failed to take Tuyen Quang, the Chinese had inflicted severe losses on French forces in the spring of 1885. Their efforts were taken as evidence of the ability of Chinese fighters to defeat Europeans in the field.

As historian Douglas Porch has pointed out, however, the strategic significance of Tuyen Quang is unclear. The commitment of large numbers of Black Flags and Chinese regulars to the eventually fruitless siege prevented their more useful deployment elsewhere, such as the Red River Delta, while Brière de l’Isle was occupied in the north. The French debacle at Lang Son undermined any support in Paris for a general war with China and probably helped prevent the enormous loss of life that might have resulted from such a conflict.

Liu Yung-fu and his Black Flags later went on to fight bravely but vainly against superior Japanese forces on Formosa. He finished his career chasing bandits in Kwangtu Province and died in 1917 as a hero of Chinese resistance to colonialism.

Captain de Borelli’s poem extolling the virtues of the self-sacrificing foreign soldiers of the Legion who had died for France was poorly received by the upper echelons of the military, and he received no further promotions in a long and active service career. The captain left behind two additional legacies of his service in Tonkin: a pair of black banners seized during the siege of Tuyen Quang, which he donated to the Foreign Legion’s shrine at Sidi Bel Abbès, Algeria, with the condition that they be destroyed if the legion ever left Africa. In accordance with his wishes, the flags were burned in a ceremony in 1962 before the French pulled out of the country, their last major colonial stronghold.

Vichy versus Asia: The Franco-Siamese War of 1941

Dr. Andrew McGregor
November 16, 2002

In 1940 the Vichy government of French Indo-China was isolated and threatened by the imperialist Japanese, the neighbouring Thais and by native rebel movements. The French had about 50,000 colonial and metropolitan troops stationed in the colony. They outnumbered the small French civilian population of 40,000 colonists in a territory of 25 million Indo-Chinese. The French collapse in the spring of 1940 resulted in the German occupation of 60% of France, but Marshall Pétain’s Vichy government retained control of the remainder, as well as France’s colonial empire. Indo-China was, however, cut off from re-supply from Vichy France. A British blockade proved effective, meaning that troops could not be rotated for the duration of the war, nor could parts be obtained for military equipment. Fuel supplies could also not be replenished so long as the petroleum-short Japanese Empire controlled the Asian theatre.
Vichy Siam 1
Legionnaires of the 5e Régiment étranger d’infanterie (5e REI) during the Vichy campaign against Thailand

Vichy diplomats attempted to persuade Germany to allow them to ship arms and equipment to Indo-China, appealing to the Germans on racial grounds, pointing out the possibility of the ‘white race’ losing ground in Asia. The Germans would promise only to speak to the Japanese. At the same time Vichy was fending off offers from the Chinese to occupy Indo-China to ‘protect’ it from the Japanese. Aware of China’s own irredentist claims in the area, the French doubted they would ever get their colony back if the Chinese were allowed in.

The Japanese deliver a shock

As France fell, the Japanese began to make demands of the Governor-General of Indo-China, General Catroux. When the General acceded to demands that rail traffic to China be stopped he was promptly replaced. Vichy named the loyal commander of the FNEO (Forces Navales d’Extreme-Orient), Vice-Admiral Jean Decoux, as Governor General. By September Decoux was facing far greater demands from the Japanese, including the right to station and transport troops through Indo-China, the use of selected airfields, and the evacuation of a hard-pressed Japanese division fighting in China through the port of Haiphong. An appeal to the Americans for help was poorly received.

Aware of his predecessor’s fate, Decoux hesitated, signing the agreement just before the Japanese ultimatum ran out. The Japanese division was tired of waiting, however, and proceeded to cross the border on September 22, 1940, attacking the Tonkinese cities of Dong Dang and Lang Son with tanks and infantry. The Japanese navy made landings along the coast, Haiphong was bombed, and the Japanese Air Force flew repeatedly over Hanoi. The Japanese offensive came as a shock to some senior French officers, who still believed in natural European superiority and often talked about taking tough action against the Japanese. Dong Dang fell immediately, and Lang Son fell two days later, with many of the locally raised colonial units breaking and running before their first experience of artillery and disciplined infantry attacks carried out by veteran soldiers. French intelligence had reported that the Japanese were demoralized, but it was the French who collapsed under pressure. Local villagers revealed French positions to the Japanese, French artillery fired on French positions, ammunition ran out quickly, and over a thousand Indo-Chinese troops deserted.

A statement issued by the Japanese emperor on October 5 called the Lang Son attack unfortunate but not important. The French prisoners were released, but 200 German legionnaires who had been separated from the other French prisoners were not released until the 13th of October. The pursuing Chinese army made numerous forays across the frontier, and the French administration remained fearful of a full-scale Chinese invasion until the end of the war. The French had lost 800 men in two days of battle with the Japanese.

Nationalist rebellions

The fall of Lang Son had almost immediate consequences for French rule. Discontented locals had witnessed how easily an Asian army defeated the whites. Vietnamese nationalist Tran Trung Lap was able to raise some 3,000 men in the Lang Son region, many of them deserters from the Indo-Chinese units defeated by the Japanese. Their arms were provided from French stocks captured by the Japanese. The returning French demonstrated they could still deal with a poorly trained rabble, and quickly drove the revolutionaries into the mountains, where planes and artillery hammered them. Tran Trung Lap was ambushed, and though he escaped the massacre of his men by machine-gun, he was shortly after captured and executed at Lang Son in December.

In the south of Vietnam, then known as Cochin China, an even more dangerous rebellion broke out in late November. Thai troops had begun to deploy along the Cambodian border and most of the garrisons in Cochin China had been sent to the frontier. Fighting broke out in the My Tho region and French police found themselves overwhelmed. The rebellion spread to Saigon and a number of southern provinces. A battalion of the Foreign Legion and a battalion of Tonkinese colonial troops on their way to Cambodia were diverted to the south and, with the help of artillery, air and naval detachments, quickly repressed the rebellion with utmost ruthlessness. The French had made their point, and could now send their forces west to deal with the Thais.

War with Thailand

The French now had to deal with a growth of militarism and Thai nationalism in neighbouring Thailand (the name was changed from Siam in 1938). Just as Germany sought to regain the territories lost in the Treaty of Versailles, Thailand was eager to retake the ethnic Thai lands along the Mekong River it was forced to cede to the French colony of Laos in 1904. In 1907 the French had also forced Siam to cede the largely Khmer provinces of Siemreap, Sisophon and Battambang to French Cambodia. The pro-Japanese government of Marshal Pibul Songgram sensed an exploitable weakness in the now isolated French colony, and began a military campaign to retake these territories after the French rejected demands for their return in October 1940.

The Thais had signed a non-aggression pact with the French in June 1940, but failed to ratify it after the collapse of metropolitan France. By October Marshal Songgram had mobilized 50,000 troops (in five divisions) and obtained 100 modern fighters, bombers and seaplanes from Japan. The Thai air-force was now three times the size of that available to the French, with the new aircraft added to the 100 American planes obtained between 1936 and 1938 (mostly Vough Corsairs and Curtiss Hawks). The Thai navy had also been equipped with modern ships and outclassed the French colonial fleet on paper at least. Border skirmishes began in November and the Thais crossed the Mekong in December. Hard-pressed elsewhere, the French could only commit fourteen battalions to the defence of Battambang Province.

On January 5, 1941, the Thais launched a full attack with artillery and aerial bombardment of French positions. The Thai offensive covered four fronts:

1) North Laos, where the Thais took the disputed territories with little opposition
2) South Laos, where the Thais crossed the Mekong by the 19th of January
3) The Dangreks Sector, where confused fighting went back and forth
4) Colonial Route 1 (RC 1) in Battambang province, where the heaviest fighting occurred.

The initial advance on the RC 1 was repulsed by the Cambodian Tirailleurs (riflemen). The main Thai column ran into a French counter-attack on January 16, colliding with the French at Yang Dam Koum in Battambang. The Thai force was equipped with Vickers 6-ton tanks while the French lacked any armour. The French counter-offensive had three parts:

1) A counter-attack on the RC 1 in the region of Yang Dam Koum
2) An assault by the Brigade d’Annam-Laos on the islands of the Mekong River
3) Operations by the naval ‘Groupement occasionnel’ against the Thai fleet in the Gulf of Siam

The main thrust of the offensive was by Col. Jacomy’s forces along the RC 1. The attack at Yang Dam Koum was a debacle from the start. The assault forces consisted of one battalion of Colonial Infantry (European) and two battalions of ‘Mixed Infantry’ (European and Indo-Chinese). The forest made artillery operations difficult, French aircraft never showed, leaving the skies to the Thai air-force, and radio communications were poor. The French transmitted orders using Morse code, perhaps explaining why the Thais often anticipated their movements. A complete rout was prevented when the Thais ran into a battalion of the Fifth regiment of Legion infantry at Phum Préau. The legionnaires were hit hard by a Thai armoured assault, but brought up two 25mm and one 75mm gun for use against the tanks. The motorized detachment of the 11th Regiment of Colonial Infantry reinforced the line, and three Thai tanks were destroyed, the rest deciding to retire. The diversionary assault on the Mekong was successful, but the largest battle of the war was to be fought in the Gulf of Siam.

Naval War in the Gulf of Siam

The French navy was all important in Indo-China, as with any overseas colony. The modest force had a virtually non-existent role in the great Asian war of 1941-45, being unable to resist either Japanese advances or Allied blockades, but they were nevertheless to have one great, unexpected battle before meeting an ignominious end. The fleet in Indo-China was divided into two parts with separate levels of responsibility. The FNEO was assigned responsibility for the overall defence of French colonies in Indo-China and the Pacific, while the Marine Indochine with its river gunboats was responsible for interior security in Indo-China.

With the land war going badly for the French, it was decided to send the small French fleet to the Gulf of Siam to engage a Thai naval force supporting the flank of the Thai advance. The Thai ships had been spotted lying at anchorage in the Koh Chang islands by a French navy flying boat. The French task-force (or Groupement occasionel) consisted of the light cruiser Lamotte-Piquet, the two colonial sloops Dumont d’Urville and Amiral Charner, and the WW1 vintage gunboats Tahure and Marne.

Vichy Siam 2HTMS Dhonburi at the Battle of Koh Chang

During the night of January 16 the French ships closed in on the islands, dividing themselves into three groups to cover the exits from the island group. On the morning of the 17th the French roared in under cover of the mist to engage the Thais. The Thai ships included three Italian-built torpedo boats and the dual-pride of the Thai fleet, the two new Japanese-made armoured coastal defence ships with 6” guns, Donburi and Ahidéa. The French were surprised to find both coastal defence ships there, as they expected only the Ahidéa, but the Donburi had arrived the day before in a standard rotation. The French lost the advantage of surprise when an overeager Loire 130 seaplane tried to bomb the Thai ships. The Thais received the French with the opening salvoes of the battle at 6:14 AM. The Lamotte-Piquet quickly inflicted fatal damage on the Ahidéa with gunfire and torpedoes, forcing it to run aground. By 7 AM French guns had sunk all three torpedo boats.

The Donburi was spotted attempting to escape through the 200m high islands and the French cruiser set off in pursuit. The Donburi was set afire but continued to engage the cruiser and the sloops, which now began to pour fire into the Donburi. Badly damaged and listing to starboard, the Donburi eventually disappeared behind an island and the French broke off. Later in the day the Donburi was taken in tow by a Thai transport but capsized soon after. Throughout the engagement the French sailors were impressed by the courage of the Thai sailors under fire.

The French ships were unable to exploit their victory, however, due to the arrival of Thai Corsairs targeting the Lamotte-Piquet. Fierce anti-aircraft fire drove off the attacks and by 9:40 AM the French turned for home. In a brief but decisive engagement the Thai fleet had been destroyed at negligible cost to the French. It appeared at the time to be a sudden and dramatic reversal of French fortunes.


The Japanese had seen enough and accompanied an offer to mediate the conflict with the arrival of a powerful naval force off the mouth of the Mekong River to encourage negotiations. A tentative armistice was imposed on January 28, but Thai provocations on the frontier continued until a formal armistice was signed aboard the Japanese battleship Natori off Saigon. The extent of Thai-Japanese collaboration was revealed when a Japanese-imposed treaty between Vichy and Thailand was signed on May 9, 1941. The disputed territories of Laos, part of the Cambodian province of Siem Réap and the whole of Battambang were awarded to Thailand. The conflict had cost the French over 300 men and a further loss of prestige amongst its colonial subjects. European troops and material losses could not be replaced due to the blockade. The French garrison remained highly demoralized until the Japanese coup in 1945 destroyed the Vichy colonial army in Indo-China.

In the end the Thais fared little better. The Khmers largely evacuated the lost Cambodian territories, preferring French rule, and Thailand itself was soon occupied by its more powerful ally, the Japanese. American Flying Fortresses bombed Bangkok in 1942. The Thais declared war against the allies in 1944, but there was some confusion over whether the declaration was actually delivered to the US government, and after the war the Thai government certified the declaration of war as null and void. The uncomfortable affair was mutually forgotten. The disputed territories in Laos and Cambodia were returned to the new Gaullist government at the end of the war.

The French light cruiser Lamotte-Piquet was laid up shortly after the battle of Koh Chang due to the shortage of fuel. In 1945 the ship was bombed by American planes before being scuttled during the brutal Japanese coup of March 1945. The remaining naval force continued to escort convoys up and down the Vietnamese coast as best they could from 1941 to 1945. In their sudden seizure of Indo-China, the Japanese sank a number of French ships with shore fire, while the remainder were scuttled by their crews, who were then imprisoned. The French colonial armed forces in Indo-China had ceased to exist by the time the British and Chinese armies arrived after the Japanese surrender. It was the British and Chinese, rather than the men of Vichy, who would turn the colony over to Gaullist France at the end of World War II.

This article was first published on November 16, 2002 by Military History Online  http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/20thcentury/francosiamese/default.aspx#


 FNEO – Forces Navales d’Extrême-Orient  

Lamotte-Piquet Light cruiser (Flagship) 1926 9350 tons

8  6.1” guns

Sunk by aircraft, Dec.1, 1945
Dumont d’Urville Colonial sloop 1933 2,600 tons Scrapped in 1958
Amiral Charner Colonial sloop 1933 2,600 tons Scuttled, March 10, 1945
Tahure First-class sloop 1919 850 tons Sunk by U.S. submarine, April 30, 1944
Marne First-class sloop 1916 601 tons Scuttled in the River Canthro, March 10, 1945

Siamese Naval Forces



Coastal defense cutter c. 1938 2,265 tons

4  8’ guns

Capsized under tow, Jan.14, 1941

(Sri Ayuthia)

Coastal defense cutter c. 1938 2,265 tons

4  8” guns

Ran aground, Jan.14, 1941

Raised by the Japanese

Sunk by shore-fire, 1951

Chonduri Torpedo boat 470 tons Sunk, Jan.14, 1941


Torpedo boat 470 tons Sunk, Jan.14, 1941


Torpedo boat 470 tons Sunk, Jan.14, 1941


This chart was first published on November 16, 2002 by Military History Online  http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/20thcentury/francosiamese/navalforces.aspx

Peacekeeping in the Central African Republic: Canada’s Quiet Return to a Troubled Continent

By Andrew McGregor

Behind the Headlines (Canadian Institute of International Affairs), 55(4), Summer 1998, pp.18-23

In the wake of misadventures in Rwanda and Somalia, and a near fiasco in eastern Zaire, Canada is back with a UN peacekeeping mission in Central Africa. What are the prospects for success?

Outside the tight circle of relations between France and the francophone countries of Africa, the words Central African Republic (CAR) usually evoke only hazy, if disturbing, memories of the brutal and farcical reign of `Emperor’ Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1966-79). Though long absent from the sensational headlines that accompanied the Bokassa regime, the CAR is today worse off than it ever was under Bokassa – a financial outcast, ruined by years of government corruption and political instability, and on the brink of sliding into the kind of violent turmoil that engulfs its neighbours.

CAR 1Following the public relations disasters of Somalia and Rwanda, and a still-born attempt at leading a mission to eastern Zaire, the Canadian government has chosen the CAR as the area for Canadian peacekeepers to return to Africa as part of a francophone peacekeeping mission that may provide the prototype for a much debated Organization of African Unity/United Nations permanent peacekeeping force.

The Central African Republic has known little of independence, democracy, or economic prosperity since it gained statehood in 1960. A land-locked country with few effective trade-links with its neighbours, Ubangi-Chari (modern CAR, Chad, Gabon, and Congo/Brazzaville) was intended by its first leader, Barthelemy Boganda, to be part of a larger post-independence nation comprising all of the former French Equatorial Africa. Boganda believed that a state of this size was necessary for economic viability and envisioned an eventual larger United States of Latin Africa, in which the former colonies of Belgium, France, Portugal, and Spain would be united in Central Africa. Boganda’s dream died with him when his plane exploded in 1959. Since then, the CAR has struggled through the financial dependency and gross mismanagement of David Dacko (twice), Bokassa, General André Kolingba, and the current president, Ange-Felix Patassé.

Effectively managed, the CAR has the potential to be self-supporting, even prosperous. The land is fertile, food plentiful (if poorly distributed), and the population of three million well within reasonable numbers for a country larger than France and the Benelux countries combined. A rich forest and abundant mineral and ore deposits (including diamonds and uranium) await exploitation, but for the moment the nation remains highly dependent upon foreign aid, mainly from France. Government corruption and incompetence placed the CAR on the International Monetary Fund blacklist, but the Fund has agreed to give the nation one last chance to mend its ways in conjunction with the UN peacekeeping mission. The long-neglected development of human resources and the continent’s lowest rate of literacy are two of the greatest impediments to developing a viable economy. Foreign debt is approaching the billion dollar mark, literacy remains rare, 65% of adults make less than US$100 per year, and 75% of children suffer from malnutrition.[1] Life expectancy is a meagre 47 years.[2]

The ethnic composition of the CAR is highly complex and constantly evolving, with some 30 groups displaying a high degree of social and cultural interaction. When describing the population of the Republic, observers often find it convenient to speak of groupings based on environmental adaptation in the three main geographic divisions of the CAR – the savaniers, the riverains, and the forestiers.[3] The last two dominated political life for 33 years, but Patassé’s presidency marked the ascendance of the savaniers. Lately, however, the savaniers are believed to have lost confidence in Patasse, who favours his own Sara group (15% of the savaniers). Patassé is protected by three private militias composed mostly of men from his home district of Ouham-Pendé, supported by Sara rebels from southern Chad who take refuge in Ouham-Pendé, including 1,000 mercenaries called Codos-Mbakaras (`Invulnerable Commandos’). He has also been able to call upon the French-trained Presidential Guard battalion, also recruited from Ouham-Pendé.

Patassé, the leader of the Mouvement pour la Libération du Peuple Centraficain (MLPC), was a prime minister in the Bokassa government. Following two abortive attempts in 1981 and 1982 to seize power from General André Kolingba (who himself took power through a coup in 1981), Patassé was eventually elected president in 1993. Allegations of corruption and tribalism against his government led, in part, to four successive mutinies by the army, which Patassé survived only by invoking a secret assistance pact with France. Nonetheless, he relies upon a platform of anti-French populism and is almost certain to run in the forthcoming presidential elections.

Kolingba remains among some groups a powerful political force with access to funding from wealthy ex-Mobutists who have taken refuge in the CAR. His 12-year rule was notable for corruption and tribalism. Kolingba, a former ambassador to Canada, may contest the elections, but his just as likely to pursue a more direct approach to the presidency. At present, French diplomacy and the UN presence serve to constrain him.

Kolingba is supported by several hundred Zaireans, ex-members of Mobutu’s Division Spéciale Presidentielle (DSP), and may be negotiating for further assistance from mercenaries. French internal security (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire) has reported a meeting between representatives of Kolingba and Christian Tavernier, a Belgian mercenary who led the ill-fated 1996-97 Serbian mercenary force in Zaire. The 3 April 1998 issue of Africa Confidential claims that Tavernier is eager to sell a mercenary force of Cambodian Khmer Rouge soldiers for use in the CAR. The new corporate-style mercenary firms that were so prominent in the recent Sierra Leone conflict have yet to take an interest in the CAR, aside from making enquiries about former French airbases at Bouar and Bangui for operations elsewhere in Africa.

Most notable among the other possible candidates for the presidency is Abel Goumba, one of the few CAR political leaders who was not compromised by collaboration with the Bokassa regime. Now in his mid-seventies, Goumba leads both the Front Patriotique pour le Progrès and the ‘G-11’ radical opposition alliance. But his democratic credentials are questionable, and there is some feeling in Bangui that his support for the mutinies was opportunistic.

One objective of the UN mission is to remove the CAR army from the political process. Unpaid and under-equipped elements of the army have participated in four abortive mutinies against Patassé that left hundreds of civilians, as well as many mutineers and French Foreign Legionnaires dead. Most of the mutineers are from Kolingba’s Yakoma tribe and are veterans of his Presidential Guard. Patassé’s repeated claim that France armed the mutineers cannot be reconciled with the rapid response France provided to his pleas for help. Most of the balance of the army are Gbaka forestiers (the tribe of Dacko and Bokassa); the almost total absence of savaniers in the ranks explains Patassé’s construction of an alternate security apparatus. At present the army has no command structure, vehicles, or communications equipment, and the security of the country has been left to a gendarmerie of 1500 men and an extremely limited operational capacity. The current demobilization and re-insertion project should retire at least a third of the army, the rest of which Patassé has resolved to build into a multi-ethnic force.

In the face of domestic pressure over intervention on behalf of the unpopular Patassé, the French government created and funded the Misson Internationale de Surveillance des Accords de Bangui (MISAB), a peacekeeping force formed of francophone troops from Chad, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali, Senegal and Togo. Authorized by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter,[4] the force was charged with monitoring implementation of the 25 January 1997 Bangui Agreements. This includes supervising the surrender of arms by former mutineers, militias, and all other persons unlawfully bearing arms. Though MISAB disarmed about 85% of the mutineers, it failed to disarm Patassé’s militias, which led to a widespread belief in Bangui that MISAB were Patassé partisans.

The performance of the multinational force was uneven; some contingents displayed a general indiscipline. Another violent mutiny followed in which 50 people were killed in the crossfire between mutineers, MISAB troops and French helicopter gunships. The 19 June to 9 July mutiny (which had a measure of public support in Bangui) was ended by the mediation of General Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali, who pushed MISAB to be more even-handed in the disarmament process.

Despite its rocky performance, MISAB was seen by the French as a model for inter-African peacekeeping co-operation. France field-tested a prototype eight-nation African peacekeeping force in Exercise Guidimakha between 20 February and 3 March 1998.[5] Unfortunately the exercise served primarily to remind the participants how vital European operational assistance would be to any OAU/UN permanent peacekeeping force. France has shipped a significant amount of military equipment to Senegal for use by such a force and is willing to provide advisors from among officers currently attached to the Senegalese army.

Britain is involved in extensive training of Ghanian peacekeepers, who have substantial UN and Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) experience already. The United States, whose efforts at taking a leadership role in creating an African peacekeeping force were politely rebuffed by several nations (most notably South Africa), has become involved in training and equipping Malian peacekeepers. Nigeria’s former foreign minister, Tom Ikimi (a driving force behind Nigeria’s ECOMOG peacekeeping adventure in Sierra Leone), has denounced the peacekeeping scheme as a neo-colonialist plot to repartition Africa.[6] Nigeria was pointedly left out of plans for creating the force, but the Togolese president, General Gnassingbé Eyadéma, and the OAU secretary-general, Salim Ahmed Salim, have provided enthusiastic support. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela appears to have come on side. He questions the OAU’s strict principles of non-intervention and respect for state sovereignty and suggests that responsible governments have a duty to protect the rights of citizens in neighbouring countries.[7] Amadou Touré, a leader in African conflict resolution, cites le devoir d’ingérence (the duty of interference) in the context of an African village, where a neighbour has the right to step into a dispute between husband and wife, and believes the African tradition needs to be translated into diplomatic action.[8]

A main impetus for the pan-African peacekeeping force is the desire of France to limit its African obligations and roll back the number of troops and bases it maintains in Africa. France has made approximately 35 interventions in the post-independence period, often on behalf of leaders with little international credibility. The recently revealed “secret assistance pacts” with African francophone leaders have been annulled, and a new policy of rescuing only democratically elected governments has been implemented.

CAR 2Malian Peacekeepers in Bangui (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

The transfer of peacekeeping duties in the CAR from MISAB to the UN’s Mission des Nations unies en République centrafricaine (MINURCA) relieves France of the burden of financial responsibility for MISAB and gives the force added international credibility. Wit Anglophone Ghana dropping out of the original line-up of participants, the new force is essentially MISAB with the addition of small contingents from Canada and Côte d’Ivoire. The leadership of MINURCA was initially offered to Amadou Touré, who turned it down, some think because he wants to be available when a commander for the proposed OAU/UN force is chosen. Field command of MINURCA has been assumed by General Ratanga of Gabon.

The MINURCA mandate is quite specific:[9]

  1. To assist in maintaining and enhancing security and stability in Bangui and the immediate vicinity;
  2. To assist national security forces in maintaining law and order in Bangui;
  3. To supervise and control the disarmament exercise (in practice this has meant arms disposal only);
  4. To ensure the freedom and security of UN personnel;
  5. To provide police training; and
  6. To provide advice and support for legislative elections scheduled for August-September 1998 (since postponed to December and now to be combined with presidential elections).

MINURCA is scheduled to leave 90 days after the results of the elections. Canadian involvement came about as a result of a direct request from th secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan, and consists of 45 communications personnel from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier. The Canadians are operating out of the French M’Poko Airbase in Bangui, which will be turned over to CAR authorities when the mission ends. The other French airbase at Bouar was stripped clean by looters after its transfer earlier this year.

Several of the CAR’s neighbours are watching MINURCA’s activities closely. The Rwandans claim that elements of the old Hutu-based Forces Armées Rwandaises and remnants of Mobutu’s DSP are active in the CAR and have launched attacks across the north-eastern Congo against the Rwandans. Chad’s Idriss Déby has recently taken steps to obtain a settlement with the Sara rebels in south Chad to facilitate the early pumping of vast reservoirs of high-grade oil recently discovered in south Chad. Déby would undoubtedly like to see a regenerated CAR army capable of denying CAR territory to Chadian rebels and bandits.

While the Canadian government hopes for a short and successful mission to assert Canadian peacekeeping credentials in Africa, there are few signs to encourage such hopes. With the CAR army largely disarmed and confined to barracks, the countryside has deteriorated into armed chaos. The continued dominance of CAR politics by and old guard of discredited leaders offers only the prolonged use of tribalism and regionalism as the guiding forces of government policy. Just as important as who wins the elections is the question of whether French external intelligence (Direction Générale de la Surveillance Extérieure), a powerful force in CAR politics for many years, abandons it manipulations and leaves Bangui to its own devices.

Regardless of the success of the democratization process, the CAR’s future prosperity will require stable relations with stable neighbours. Unfortunately the CAR remains in the centre of one of the world’s most volatile and faction-ridden areas.. A peacekeeping success in the CAR will be only the first step on a long rad of regional conflict resolution and structural adjustment. To succeed, African leaders must see MINURCA as the start of such a process and not just an attempt by France to pass off responsibility for an unprofitable territory to the UN.

[1] Figures provided in supporting documents for UN Resolution 1159 (1998).

[2] Brian Hunter, ed, Statesman’s Yearbook 1996-97 (London, Macmillan 1996), 333, 1992 figure.

[3] Pierre Kalck, Central African Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993), xx-xxi.

[4] UN Security Council Resolution 1125 (6 August 1997) authorized a three-month mission to ensure security. On 6 November 1997, a three-month extension was granted by Resolution 1136 (1997).

[5] Exercise Guidimakha was held on the borders of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. The participating nations were Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Gambia, Cape Verde Islands, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. There were also small units from the US Marines and the British Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Logistics were provided by the French.

[6] Tom Ikimi, speech at an ECOWAS meeting, Lomé, December 1997, quoted in Foreign Report 2485, 26 February 1998, 6.

[7] Nelson Mandela, speech at the 34th OAU Summit, Oaugadougou, 8-10 June 1998.

[8] Kay Whiteman; “A Conversatiion with ATT [Amadour Touman Touré],” West Africa no. 4119, 30 September-13 October 1996, 15611.

[9] UN Security Council Resolution 1159 (27 March 1998).