GENEVA, July 4 -- The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front took control Monday of the Rwandan capital of Kigali after a weekend of intense fighting with Hutu-led government troops, U.N. officials said. A United Nations spokesman in Nairobi said the rebels opened an escape route in Kigali late Sunday evening to allow the government forces to flee. 'There's still a few pockets where the government troops are battling with the rebels but the city has fallen to the Rwandan Patriotic Front and they now control all the city's checkpoints,' Emery Brusset, spokesman for the U.N. Rwandan Emergency Office in Nairboi, told United Press International. Within minutes of the fall of Kigali, the RPF seized key government installations and captured the Saint Famille religious complex in the center of the capital. Humanitarian aid agencies hailed the RPF's victory, saying that they could now evacuate the injured and step up relief supply distributions to the tens of thousands of displaced people and restock hospitals in the capital. 'We hope we have a lot more access to displaced people and the RPF's takeover of the city means there should be more safety for civilians because they will no longer be sheltering along one of the main frontlines of fighting,' Brusset said. However, France ordered its troops in Rwanda to prevent the RPF from entering its 'safe zone' in the southwest of the country. 'In respect of their humanitarian mission to protect displaced people, French troops will prevent armed elements from intruding into this zone,' a senior Defense Ministry official in Paris said.
Troops taking part in France's Operation Turquoise set up a 'safe zone' in the southwest of Rwanda for the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the rebel advance. The zone covers about one-fifth of the central African nation. A French military official in Rwanda, Col. Didier Thibaut, told French radio he has received orders to block the advance of the rebels if they are threatening the refugees. He said about 300 French troops based in the town of Gikongoro, in the heart of the 'safe zone,' have been ordered to remain there despite the westward advance of the rebels. France on June 23 launched what it says is a humanitarian mission in Rwanda to protect civilians from the fighting. But the RPF has vowed to resist the intervention, charging France is seeking to support the Hutus. Control of Kigali will give the RPF an opportunity to advance further into west Rwanda, the holdout of the self-proclaimed Rwandan government, and take control of the remaining third of the country they don't already occupy. The U.N. spokesman said tens of thousands of people were also fleeing the southern town of Butare as RPF troops step up their offensive in the region and come closer to seizing the strategic town. Brusset said people were heading south toward Burundi and west into Zaire to flee the fighting. 'The RPF's forceful advance is a surprise to us and it's going to take some time before we're able to get a really clear picture of what is happening there,' Brusset said. Meanwhile, in Geneva, a Rwandan government official warned that the RPF would not manage to keep control of Kigali or advance further west to the government-controlled areas. 'Even if they have Kigali, they don't have the whole land, and even if they get power, it won't last long,' Jean de Dieu Habineza, Labor and Social Affairs Minister of the ousted government, told reporters. Habineza estimated that between 1 million and 1.5 million people have been killed in ethnic fighting since Rwanda's civil war started in April. Humanitarian aid agencies in Rwanda have said the death toll from the three months of fighting could be as high as 500,000. 'I'm not surprised the rebels have taken contol of Kigali. Government forces are weak, there's an arms embargo on Rwanda, but Uganda is supplying weapons to the rebels, and there's no embargo on them,' Habineza said. Habineza appealed to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross for $307 million in food and medical supplies, which he said would be distributed to both sides in the fighting. Fighting between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi tribes started April 6 after President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, died in a mysterious plane crash along with the president of Burundi. Ironically, Habyarimana was returning from the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salaam, where he was meeting with other African leaders to forge a plan to unite Hutu and Tutsi populations from Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire and Tanzania. The government-led troops and Presidential guard have been blamed for the majority of the massacres, images of which have revolted viewers around the world. Before the fighting started, Tutsis made up about 10 percent of the country, but aid agencies now fear the Hutu-led ethnic cleansing has reduced the race to only a few percent of the country's total.