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FRENCH TROOPS ENTER RWANDA ON MERCY MISSION TO CIVILIANS

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French soldiers crossed into Rwanda on Thursday to try to stop the widespread killing of civilians, despite fears the two-month mission could inflame murderous passions and ignite a wider conflict.

The first troops of a 600-man contingent crossed into western Rwanda from two border towns in neighboring Zaire, where they had been gathering for two days, said French government radio, quoting a government source.France's mercy mission won narrow approval Wednesday from a divided U.N. Security Council despite strong warnings from Rwandan rebels that the French would be treated as enemies.

Foreign Minister Francois Leotard said about 2,500 French soldiers and marines would be sent to Rwanda in advance of a larger U.N. force to be in place later this summer.

A reconnaissance group entered from the border town of Goma in Zaire, while about 200 men in transport vehicles and backed by helicopters entered 60 miles to the south from Bukavu, officials said.

The initial objective is to secure the safety of 8,000 minority Tutsis at a refugee camp in Cyangugu, in the southwestern border region controlled by troops of the Hutu-dominated government, Leotard said.

The initial force in Zaire included Foreign Legion combat engineers and marine infantrymen, motorized and artillery units. Veterans at quelling trouble in French-allied African nations, the units have been increasingly used in humanitarian operations in recent years.

But the people France is trying to help questioned the motives. The predominantly Tutsi rebels contend Paris has long favored Rwanda's government, which is considered responsible for most of the massacres. French troops helped the government thwart a rebel offensive in 1990.

France says it will not take sides in the war, which resumed after a suspicious April 6 plane crash killed Rwanda's Hutu president, who had agreed to a power-sharing agreement with the rebels pending elections.

As many as 200,000 people have been killed, mostly Tutsis massacred by Hutu militias.

"We want to engage ourselves as little as possible in Rwandan territory and in no way do we want to take a role in the conflict," Leotard said in a television interview Wednesday night.