Despite last week's recapture of Kolwezi by French, Belgian and Zairian paratroopers, the situation in Zaire's southern Shaba Province is still far from stabilized and fundamental questions regarding the future security of its major towns remain unresolved.
It is becoming increasingly clear to journalists who visited Kolwezi during the past four days that the 650 French Foreign Legionnaires involved in securing the town are not sufficiently well equipped to carry out more than brief search and destroy operations in the immediate vicinity.
The French have no armored cars, only a few helicopters and limited supplies. This, perhaps, explains why they have not gone after rebel forces heading for Angola with a group of European hostages.
Yesterday, military officials reported that two French soldiers were killed on Tuesday when the legionnaires fanned out in two separate operations outside Kolwezi in search of small rebel groups still operating in the area.
But the future of the mining center seemed in doubtfollowing the failure of French-speaking African states to reach agreement at their Paris summit on sending a pan-African force into Shaba.
Without some outside help, it is believed here that Kolwezi is likely to fall into rebel hands again or at least remain too insecure to permit the revival of the shattered town and particularly its large copper, cobalt and zinc mines.
Since France has announced its intention to withdraw its 800-man force once all white hostages are rescued, there has been some discussion among Western embassies here about a joint Western force to defend Kolwezi.
It is not known here, however, whether Western countries, including the United States, are politically prepared for such a committment.
One positive note in the current situation was the Zairian-Belgian reconciliation achieved yesterday in a meeting between President Mobutu Sese Seko and Premier Leo Tindemans in Paris. The reconciliation holds out the hope of continued Belgian involvement in the operation of Shaba mines but does not resolve the thorny issue of security.
In an affort to reassure white in another mining town 65 miles north-west of the Shaba provincial capital of Lubumbashi, a column of French Legionnaires set off Tuesday from Kolweizi heading eastward to Likasi. They are expected to show the flag for 48 hours.
Whites throughout Shaba have become extremely edgy since the killing of at least 120 Europeans in Kolwezi during the six day rebel occupation there. In addition, 60 to 70 whites are missing and many of them are thought to be hostages of a rebel column retreating back into Angola.
Among the dead and missing are at least two and possibly four Americans. The U.S. Embassy has not been able to confirm any American deaths but French and Belgian sources in Kolweizi believe four Americans died.
There are about 1,500 Europeans working or living in Likasi, many more in Lubumbashi and smaller numbers in a number of railroad, trade or mining towns of the province.
The sharp disagreement between the French and Belgians over the total evacuation of the some 2,500 Europeans from Kolwezi continues here. The head of the French military mission in Zaire, Col. Yves Gras, told reporters that "the Belgians made a fundamental error in my opinion" in deciding to airlift all their 1,000 nationals out to Europe.
He credited this for the "psychosis of flight" that resulted in the emptying of the town of all whites in 48 hours. The European sections of Kolwezi are now only inhabited by howling dogs standing outside homes and waiting for their masters to return or prowling the streets.
Other problems are arising in the Legionnares' relations with the four companies of Zairian paratroopers stationed in Kolwezi. There have been increasing signs of friction between the two which are supposed to be acting under one joint command but in fact do not.
Instead, the French seem to be making all decisions regarding security and carrying out most of the house to house search and destroy operation around the town.
These problems have led outside observes to feel that the presence of another Western or African force is becoming a necessity to stabilize the situation.
The Belgians have left behind a reinforced battalion at Kamina, 140 miles to the north of Kolwezi, but it has not been committed so far to protecting the threatened towns where whites have become jittery.
In the meantime, the fate of a pan-African force to fight in Shaba alongside the Zairian Army, proposed by Gabon President Omar Bongo last weekend, appears to be very uncertain. Morocco has sent a 40 man military team as a token measure of support but King Hassan is understood to have told Zairian President Mobutu that he will not commit combat troops unless other African states agree to do so.
Last year, Morocco was the only country to provide such assistance dispatching 1,500 troops who quickly put an end to the Shaba insurgency then under way.
There has been talk of Gabon, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt sending some troops but so far nothing as materialized beyond the small Moroccan team and a promise by Egypt to send a study mission, according to the Zaire News Agency.
The idea would be to use the Afican troops mainly for policing the town of Kolwezi and other threatened urban centers in Shaba Province while French and possibly Belgian paratroopers lead the offensive to clear the rebels from the country.
The summitt of French-speaking African states in Paris left the idea still in the planning and consultation stage with no concrete action taken because of a sharp division with the loosely knit and ideologically divided grouping. But it is still possible a few African nations may decide to send troops independently of the formal French speaking bloc.
The situation in the town of Kolwezi itself shows little sign of improvement. Zairian Red Cross workers have begun the task of burying some of the black and white bodies scattered in the streets but the Red Cross here announced there was an "imminent danger" of a breakout of cholera and typhiod.
There is still no electricity, water or food in the town, although the remaining 30,000 to 35,000 Zairians have not acted as if they were acutely short of basic items. Correspondents have seen no beggers in the street or been asked for food. But the economy remains at a complete standstill and it can only be a matter of time befor the shortage of food becomes a problem.