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Vietnam france recount battle 50 years later { May 7 2004 }

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Vietnam, France Recount Battle 50 Years Later
Fri May 7, 2004 03:04 AM ET

By Nguyen Nhat Lam
DIEN BIEN PHU CITY, Vietnam (Reuters) - French pilot Michel Marszalek fought in the battle of Dien Bien Phu half a century ago, but until this week had never set foot in the Vietnamese city which has come to epitomize the end of French rule in Indochina.

The 73-year-old veteran, who flew 115 missions over Dien Bien Phu in a C-47 Dakota, was in the mountain-ringed city to remember his own fallen comrades as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the epic victory over the French on Friday.

"I don't recognize this place," Marszalek told Reuters, referring to the hotels, restaurants, shops and Internet cafes in the city of 60,000 people.

All he recalled from his sorties half a century ago were glimpses of paddy fields and rustic wooden houses from the air.

Undeterred by unrelenting rain, some 15,000 people crowded Dien Bien Phu's main stadium on Friday to watch military parades, variety shows and listen to rousing speeches.

"We are sharing the joy and victory with the people of France and the peace-loving people of the world," Defense Minister Pham Van Tra told an enthusiastic crowd of mostly Vietnamese.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose guerrilla tactics were made famous by the Dien Bien Phu rout, sees broader significance in the event. "It was a victory for colonized countries all over the world," the 93-year-old four star general said in March.

It was on May 7, 1954 that a rag-tag group of Viet Minh accepted the surrender from the better equipped forces led by General Christian de Castries after a bloody 56-day siege. The victory marked France's withdrawal from Indochina.

Giap estimated French forces -- who included a multinational French legion comprised of Germans, Italians, north Africans, Thai and even Vietnamese -- suffered 16,000 casualties.

The Viet Minh, a coalition of communists and nationalists, lost around 10,000.


The actual tallies will probably never be known. Other accounts, including "The Last Valley" by Martin Windrow published this year, note about 9,000 French forces were marched away as prisoners, and perhaps half died or disappeared.

The French have taken a low-key approach to the 50-year anniversary, with President Jacques Chirac and Ambassador Antoine Pouillieute expected to attend a ceremony in Paris on Friday to honor the fallen.

At a seminar about the legendary battle, one of many events that Vietnam has hosted since March for the anniversary, Pouillieute focused on the lessons learned rather than the defeat.

"The profound relations between Vietnam and France have often been happy, sometimes cruel, but never mediocre," the envoy said at the seminar last month.

Two embassy officials will lay a wreath at the French monument in Dien Bien Phu, a white obelisk within a courtyard of trees that lies along a small road surrounded by houses. It was the former location of the French military hospital.

Marszalek will also lay his own wreath at the monument and is taking back soil from A1 Hill (Eliane 2) where France made its last major stand. The French gave women's names to a number of hills where they were entrenched.

While recounting stories of the battle with tears, Marszalek, accompanied by his wife who had lost her fiance at Dien Bien Phu, also paid tribute to his former enemy.

"The bravery that these people showed to defend their country is incredible," he said.

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