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Troops May Be in Rwanda for a Year, Perry Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Defense Secretary William J. Perry said after an inspection here Sunday that U.S. soldiers may be deployed for “a year or longer” to help more than 1 million Rwandan refugees facing death and disease in nightmarish camps along the Zairian border.

Perry said that the 1,000 Americans now deployed in Zaire, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda as part of Operation Support Hope are on “a humanitarian mission” to alleviate the suffering of the refugees and to help them return home.

He said no combat troops are being used, and he insisted that U.S. forces will not be drawn into a peacekeeping role if a vicious ethnic-based civil war resumes in Rwanda.

Asked at a news conference how long the Americans will stay, Perry said, “I would certainly expect some aspects of the humanitarian mission to go on a year or longer.” He added, “We’ll stay here as long as needed to do our mission.”

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Much of the fast-growing military operation is aimed at airlifting trucks, earthmoving equipment, bulk food and other emergency supplies for use by U.N. agencies and non-governmental groups running the frantic relief operations here and in Rwanda.

A U.S. team has begun purifying water for distribution to the refugees. And Sunday, three soldiers used a bulldozer to begin digging a mass grave in the black volcanic grit beside Kibumba camp, where foul mounds of decomposing corpses--estimated at more than 1,000--have lain uncollected in the sun for days.

“We tried to prepare the men before they came,” Army Lt. Michelle Ericksen said as the brown bulldozer pushed the shallow soil and clanked on the cold rock. “We had the chaplain out here, and he told them, ‘Don’t be afraid if you want to cry.’ ”

Later, a French army front-end loader began an even more grisly task beside the main road at Kibumba.

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Moving down a long, horrific heap of hundreds of bloated bodies, it slowly scooped up rotting corpses and bloody offal in its saw-toothed shovel, wheeled around with a roar of black smoke and dumped them on a berm nearby. A yellow earthmoving machine pushed dirt, grass and rocks over the pile, but legs and arms and faces stuck out through the rubble.

Perry said his “heart was torn by the human tragedy here” in Goma. An estimated 1.2 million refugees overran this dusty border town two weeks ago at the end of Rwanda’s civil war but quickly found themselves living on jagged volcanic rocks in miserable camps without sufficient food or water.

More than 20,000 refugees have died already, aid officials say, many in a fierce cholera epidemic. The death rate from cholera has fallen dramatically in recent days, but doctors warn that a fast-spreading strain of amoebic dysentery may prove even more dangerous because it is more difficult to treat.

Perry didn’t actually visit any of the refugee camps, which lie outside Goma. The 98 U.S. soldiers already here don’t have helicopters, and five French military helicopters at the airport were being used for a simultaneous visit Sunday by French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur and Defense Minister Francois Leotard.

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Instead, Perry greeted U.S. troops at the airport, visited the lakeside water-purification center and met with local U.N. and relief group officials. He also held a short news conference and was interviewed via satellite from Washington for CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation.”

Despite his brief visit, Perry offered an optimistic forecast for what aid officials have called the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.

“I believe we have truly turned the corner on this tragedy and will be making improvements every day,” said Perry, who was tie-less and in khakis.

Earlier, Perry had visited the military airlift staging hub at Entebbe Airport in Kampala, Uganda, where the vast majority of U.S. troops--709 in all--are now deployed. He then flew to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, where a 72-member airlift command unit had reopened the war-damaged airport. Five U.S. transport and supply planes landed in Kigali on Sunday, he said.

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As soon as trucks can be hired or delivered, officials said, the food will be hauled here, about 100 miles west, or distributed along the road for returning refugees.

Perry and his top aides--including Gen. George Joulwan, commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, which is in charge of the relief operation--also met for about 30 minutes in Kigali with the new president of Rwanda, Pasteur Bizimungu, and his vice president and defense chief, Paul Kagame.

The Clinton Administration formally recognized the government in Kigali on Saturday, paving the way for Perry’s visit. The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front won control of Rwanda two weeks ago after fighting a brutal civil war against the Hutu-based regime.

The Hutu leaders and army fled across the border to Zaire after conducting what human rights groups call a genocidal campaign against the Tutsis, a slaughter that has left up to half a million dead since April. About 4 million people--nearly half the country’s prewar population--are now either refugees or displaced within Rwanda, according to the United Nations.

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Lt. Gen. Daniel Schroeder, who heads the military task force running the U.S. relief operation, said the new government offered assurances that Americans are not at risk in Rwanda and that no reprisals would be carried out against returning Hutu refugees.

Schroeder said Perry asked the Rwandan president “to define the functions where we could make a contribution” to ending the humanitarian crisis. Schroeder said there was no discussion or plan to provide U.S. military assistance to the new government.

Schroeder said he would consider using a U.S. truck company to transport food and refugees in Rwanda. He said the military may also repair or replace shattered radio transmitters for the new government so they can broadcast appeals for the refugees to return home.

Schroeder said the 72 U.S. troops now in Kigali--the force will soon grow to about 200--are under orders not to leave the airport and have a small detachment of military police for their protection. But the general said he considers the potential threat in Kigali to be low.

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“It is nonaggressive, non-threatening, almost benign,” he said. “And every day I’ve been in there, it’s gotten progressively better.”

Aid group officials here said Perry’s visit had one tangible benefit after a week in which the U.S. operation had been widely criticized for delays and confusion.

In a deal brokered by UNICEF, Perry authorized the immediate airlift to Goma of nine large water-tanker trucks from Helsinki, Finland, to deliver desperately needed potable water to the refugees. The trucks are due to arrive this morning.

“They will double our ability to deliver water in one day,” said Steffan de Mistura, the UNICEF representative. “That’s really where the U.S. Air Force can make a difference.”

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