Fearing further violence in Zaire, the Bush Administration began efforts Wednesday to evacuate Americans from the troubled Central African nation, where two days of rioting has left the center of the capital in ruins and an estimated 30 people dead.
Earlier in the day, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had authorized a U.S. loan of several C-141 military transport planes to France to ferry more soldiers, supplies and equipment to Zaire.
“The sole purpose of this activity is to assist in the protection and evacuation of Americans and other foreigners,” a Pentagon spokesman said. “It does not constitute involvement in the internal affairs of Zaire.”
In Brussels on Wednesday, the Belgian government decided to send 500 more troops to Zaire to protect its nationals, joining 500 already there. France sent at least 150 more soldiers, bringing its contingent to 600.
Although State Department spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed that the Belgian and French troops have restored a tenuous calm in the capital city of Kinshasa, he cautioned that “personal security is not assured” and that “food and other necessities” in the city of 3 million are running short.
“We are proceeding with the evacuation of Americans because we believe the situation could quickly deteriorate,” he said. There were indications the unrest had spread to outlying regions.
Today through Saturday, charter flights arranged by the State Department will carry evacuees from Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Congo, which is directly across the Congo River from Kinshasa.
By midday Wednesday, at least 700 people had scrambled to safety across the river, including French, Belgian, American, Canadian and Lebanese nationals. Several hundred others had fled from mineral-rich southern Zaire to Zambia, Zimbabwe or South Africa.
An estimated 3,500 Americans are in Zaire. Boucher said about 1,000 are U.S. government employees and dependents, most of whom live in the capital. The rest are missionaries and their families scattered throughout the huge country, formerly the Belgian Congo.
The violence began Monday when Zairian soldiers mutinied and rioted, demanding back pay and challenging the 26-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
According to reports from Kinshasa on Wednesday, the foreign troops halted the rioting in the capital soon after their arrival and imposed a curfew.
Reports from Kinshasa said that much of the city--with its single luxury hotel, Mobutu’s lush palace and private zoo, and vast conglomeration of concrete block slums and potholed roads--has been devastated.
Most businesses were looted, many homes robbed and vandalized and water treatment plants destroyed, according to news agency reports from the capital.
Mobutu, who lives in aloof splendor in his riverside palace and normally communicates to his impoverished nation in grandiose televised proclamations, declared in a television address Tuesday night that the unrest was the worst since the violence that attended independence 31 years ago.
While Mobutu said he had agreed to requests from Belgium and France to send troops, opposition leaders charged that he had incited the troops to mutiny to provoke Western intervention.
Mobutu agreed in April, 1990, to hand over power to a democratically elected government within a year. But no date for elections has been set, and a national conference that was to schedule them has broken up.