Whites in Zaire's Shaba Province are arming themselves both as a precaution against further rebel invasions and to ward off attacks by increasingly active armed gangs.

Many are also taking out special insurance policies that will provide their families with substantial cash sums in Europe should they be killed in a civil war.

Last week, Belgian Foreign Minister Henri Simonet drew attention to the unrest that still prevails in Zaire when he announced that 250 paratroops were being sent to the country because of the threat of food riots in Kinshasa, the capital. He said the riots could endanger the lives of 30,000 Belgians and other Europeans living there.

The guns and insurance policies that many of Shaba's 5,000 whites are getting are the direct result of the rebel attack last May on the mining town of Kolwezi in which about 200 whites and many more blacks were killed.

None of the whites were armed when the rebels brushed aside the undisciplined Zairian Army and embarked on a week-long orgy of destruction. Survivors believe the white community could have held off the rebels had they been armed. Most of the 70 to 80 men who have returned to Kolwezi now have guns, many purchased on the flourishing black market.

Even here in the provincial capital most resident whites have a gun now and also have made contingency plans to protect themselves and their families in the event of an uprising.

"Kolwezi made us realize we are in our own," said a Belgian employed by Gecomines, the state-owned mining company. "We can't rely on the Zairian Army and help from Europe will probably come too late."

Other whites cite the growing number of armed robberies as the reason for arming themselves.

"The gangs are getting bolder and bolder," said a Greek businessman who has lived in Shaba for 30 years. "They shot and killed one white recently and have robbed dozens of others at gunpoint."

Although they are arming and insuring themselves, most whites believe their best protection lies in the presence in Shaba of the 2,400-strong Inter-African Force, primarily composed of Moroccan and Senegalese troops.

The force took over from the French and Belgian paratroops who recaptured Kolwezi and it is generally thought that a third Shaba invasion is unlikely because of its presence.

There is much uncertainty, however, about how long the force will remain and whether it will be replaced by other foreign troops once it leaves. Most whites are bitter critics of the Zairian Army and say they will leave Shaba as soon as the Inter-African Force pulls out.

Their departure would strain severely Shaba's tottering economy, threatening the government's main source of foreign exchange.

Zaire seems certain, therefore, to pressure France into persuading its African surrogates to retain troops in Zaire.