France will send 1,000 troops to rid French Guiana of illegal gold diggers, the president announced Monday, saying they were endangering both the environment and the food chain in the South American territory.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, visiting France's largest overseas territory, promised a "fight without mercy."
Troops from mainland France and the Antilles will begin the "exceptional operation" next week and will stay as long as necessary, Sarkozy said.
Sarkozy made the announcement from a Foreign Legion base in southern French Guiana which is pockmarked with hundreds of illegal gold-panning sites.
Unauthorized panning, in which toxic mercury is used, endangers the environment and risks contaminating the food chain through fish.
"It's not normal that you no longer see fish, and when you see them, they're dead," the French president said.
"We must not be content with destroying the illegal sites, which start up a few weeks later. We have to durably destroy the networks feeding the sites and attack the commanders and those laundering the product of this illegal activity," Sarkozy said.
Many of those looking for gold come from Brazil. Sarkozy is meeting on Tuesday with his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Addressing the issue of illegal immigration, Sarkozy said border police would have an aircraft at their disposal to return illegal immigrants home. Some 10,000 illegal migrants were returned home in 2007.
Sarkozy, on his first trip to France's overseas departments and territories since his election in May, also visited the launch site for European Ariane rockets at Kourou.