Plans to dispatch an international military contingent to aid starving refugees in Central Africa crept forward Tuesday when Canada agreed to command the expedition and the United States edged toward participation in some form.
But before soldiers can begin landing in the area, many questions still must be answered, including the crucial one of how much force the international troops will be permitted to use when getting food, water and medical supplies to the refugees, who are caught between warring ethnic factions in eastern Zaire.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, expressing frustration at the slow Western response to the crisis, told a news conference in Ottawa that he has been in contact with 16 world leaders since Friday and has commitments from 10 countries willing to participate in a Canadian-led rescue effort. Advance elements of the mission could be in place within 48 hours of U.N. Security Council approval, Chretien added.
Noting that hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, he said the world has no choice but to assume the risks of intervention. "There are still many details to be worked out; there is no certainty that we will succeed in putting together this mission," he said. "But we have made significant progress in the last 48 hours. I hope we do succeed, because every hour that the world delays means more lost lives.
"We cannot have any illusions. . . . It will be a dangerous mission, but I feel to not act at all would be worse, and immoral."
Declaring that "the United States is vital to the success of any mission," Chretien said he would talk with President Clinton by telephone Tuesday night.
Canada and France have led the drive at the United Nations for quick military intervention in Central Africa. The United States, Britain and Russia have been more cautious. An estimated 1.2 million refugees, mainly ethnic Hutus who fled Rwanda for camps in Zaire in 1994, have been cut off from aid workers by fighting in the area and are in danger of dying from starvation, thirst and disease.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies defended the United States' cautious approach, citing the experience of an international famine relief force sent into Somalia in 1992-93, which ended up in the cross-fire of rival warlords.
"We learned some lessons" in Somalia, he said, "and one of them is that you have to be awfully certain when you go into something this big, this complicated, this potentially dangerous, that you know what you're getting into. You have a plan for dealing with it. You have some conception of an outcome that you'd like to see, and you have some conception of how it's all going to end for you."
The Clinton administration was described as "actively studying" the role the U.S. might play in an international force, with a decision expected by the end of the week.
While insisting that all issues remain open, one senior State Department official said Canadian, European and U.N. officials have indicated that their highest priority is getting U.S. help with airlift and logistics.
The American stance produced a sharp rebuke Tuesday from French Defense Minister Charles Millon in Paris, who said in a radio interview: "Intervening is urgent and procrastination by some countries is intolerable. The United States must not drag its feet any longer." Millon's comments came on the eve of a visit to Paris by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Canada was selected to command the proposed rescue force largely because it is acceptable to the three affected countries, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire. The Rwandan military government has objected to the French because it believes that Paris is too closely allied with Zaire. Canada also has no colonial history and can provide soldiers who speak French, the predominant European language in the region.
U.N. sources in New York said the force would number 10,000 and that in addition to Canada and France, South Africa, Spain, Italy and Mali have agreed to provide troops. The mission would last up to six months before being replaced by a U.N.-led peacekeeping force.
Canadian, French and U.N. officials stressed the humanitarian aspects of the mission. The Canadian-led force would secure airports, protect aid workers and secure the delivery of food and supplies.
But the deployment of the force contains the prospect of armed clashes with the assorted factions in the region.
The huge Mugunga refugee camp west of the Zairian provincial capital of Goma, for example, is controlled by exiled Rwandan Hutu militias, including some of those that fled Rwanda after participating in the genocide of more than 800,000 people, mainly ethnic Tutsis, in 1994. The militias were reported exchanging gunfire Tuesday with Tutsi rebels from Zaire.
U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suggested at a Rome news conference that the international military force might be asked to disarm Hutu militias, which are accused of using threats and violence on the refugees to prevent them from returning to Rwanda.
The U.S. and Britain also have stressed that any international intervention should include provisions for dismantling the camps and permitting genuine refugees to return safely to Rwanda.
But in Ottawa, Chretien and Canadian Defense Minister Doug Young said the intervention should focus on immediate relief in the area rather than a long-term political solution.
In Goma, now occupied by Tutsi rebels, a few truckloads of supplies that the U.N. managed to get into town Monday remained undelivered Tuesday as aid workers negotiated with rebels over distribution.
The refugees most in need remained in camps, in the jungle and on lava beds west of Goma, out of reach of the relief column. Roads leading out of the city were mined, and there were unconfirmed reports that cholera had broken out among the refugees.
Reuters news service reported from Geneva that the U.N. was prepared to use the Zairian town of Kisangani as a base to supply tons of fuel, food, blankets and other supplies. Under the plan, small planes would locate refugees in roadless areas and helicopters would airdrop food to them.
Turner reported from Toronto and Kempster from Washington.