France has conducted a covert military operation to prop up Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairian leader, as rebels advanced across the country, according to American intelligence reports and an official in a company that French intelligence used as cover for the operation.
The operation, which began within weeks after the outbreak of the rebellion, involved obtaining three combat aircraft from Yugoslavia for Mobutu’s forces, along with the pilots and mechanics for them, and the services of least 80 mercenaries in early January, according to the intelligence reports. Most of the mercenaries were Serbs; others were Belgians and French.
It could not be determined whether the operation is continuing, but the planes and crews are still in Zaire, said an American official, and American covert operations specialists say it would be difficult to cut off such an operation immediately. A few weeks ago, the Zairian government forces received five MiG-21s, which a senior Western diplomat thought were from Yugoslavia, though he said he did not know who had paid for them.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, Jacques Rummelhardt, denied that the French government was involved with any covert operation in Zaire, or with Geolink, a company that the intelligence reports have cited as part of the operation.
Details of the operation are murky, as is characteristic of many covert operations, and Western diplomats said it was quite possible that the French intelligence service might have been running this operation without other branches of the government knowing about it. One European diplomat in the region compared it to the kind of operation, concealed from other branches of the American government, that Lt. Col. Oliver North ran from the Reagan White House.
The January component of the operation cost $5 million, paid for by the French, and the planes were assed through at least two companies in order to disguise their origin and destination, according to the intelligence reports. At the center of the operation were officials of the federal government in Yugoslavia and Geolink, a Paris-based telecommunications company, the reports say.
“Our company was a good cover,” said Andre Martinie, a company official, noting that the company had extensive business dealings in Zaire and that its business was selling secure telephone systems to governments and rebels.
Although much has been written about the Serbian mercenaries in Zaire, who are reportedly paid $3,000 to $5,000 a month, and although articles in the French press have said that Geolink, which had sales last year of $25 million, was involved, Martinie said that no journalist had asked him about the connection. It was not known whether the mercenaries who were reportedly recruited by Geolink included a Serb who called himself Col. Dominic Yugo and who ruled over Kisangani like a petty tyrant, summarily executing dozens of people, according to witnesses.