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Americans evacuated from Brazzaville fighting

June 7, 1997 GMT

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ Dozens of Americans fled a night of fighting between government soldiers and militiamen Saturday, escaping the city aboard private planes to nearby Kinshasa.

Forty-four Americans, most of them missionaries, arrived in Kinshasa, capital of neighboring Congo, on Saturday evening and described a night of street clashes.

Five of the people who fled were dependents of U.S. Embassy personnel in Brazzaville, State Department spokesman Christopher Bush said in Washington.

``When we took off there were shots being fired at the plane,″ said Kevin McCabe, director of the Pennsylvania-based Christian Missionary Alliance. He said U.S. officials had hoped to assist more people to leave Saturday but were blocked by unsafe streets and a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Bush said U.S. officials helped Americans get to airports for the five-minute flight across the Congo River to Kinshasha, but that the assistance was not part of any formal evacuation.

The French Defense Ministry said one French soldier was killed Saturday night in Brazzaville during a clash with ``uncontrolled elements.″ One Congolese officer was also killed, according to the ministry.

Late Saturday, the State Department urged U.S. citizens to defer travel to Republic of Congo ``due to the deteriorating security situation.″

Violence erupted in the riverside capital when government troops, fearing attempts to disrupt next month’s presidential elections, attempted to disarm members of a 5,000-strong militia loyal to former leader Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso.

The current president, Pascal Lissouba, ended Sassou-Nguesso’s 13-year dictatorship in 1992.

McCabe said the situation had been relatively calm Friday but deteriorated overnight.

``There was no warning any of this would happen,″ he said. ``Shops were closed, businesses were closed, everything is closed. There is no news given on the radio. Telephone lines have been cut.″

Another missionary, Stan Hotalen, said heavy artillery and mortar fire could be heard during the night and that the houses of some foreigners were looted.

Attempts to contact U.S. officials in Brazzaville were unsuccessful.

U.S. Embassy officials in Kinshasa met the evacuees at the airport, where they arrived in private planes after the five-minute flight.

McCabe said he and the other evacuees were escorted to the airport in Brazzaville by Congolese soldiers after the U.S. Embassy contacted Americans in the afternoon.

As many as 150 U.S. citizens live in Brazzaville, which ironically, was the staging area for preparations in April and May to evacuate Americans and other foreigners from what was then Zaire _ and is now Congo _ had it become necessary.

Hundreds of American, French, Belgian, British and Portuguese soldiers were deployed in Brazzaville and were prepared to pluck foreign nationals from Kinshasha if fighting broke out.

But Laurent Kabila’s rebel army took the city with relative ease May 17, driving out Mobutu Sese Seko’s government. Foreign troops began leaving Brazzaville shortly afterward.

About 2,500 French live in Brazzaville, but the French government said it had no plans to evacuate them. They have been advised since Friday, however, to remain indoors.

The Republic of Congo gained independence from France in 1960 and has been plagued by political and ethnic unrest since the early 1970s.

The government last week imposed a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew because of the latest fighting, which has killed at least one soldier and wounded several people.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the aid agency Doctors Without Borders said neither food nor medicine had reached about 10,000 refugees in Bilolo, about 20 miles outside Brazzaville, since Thursday because of unrest.

Doctors Without Borders and the Congolese Red Cross are the only agencies serving the Bilolo refugees, who crossed the river to escape fighting when Kabila’s forces seized the region.