President Agrees to 5,000 Troops for Zaire Relief
President Clinton agreed Wednesday to commit as many as 5,000 U.S. military personnel, including a battalion of paratroopers, to airlift food and medicine to more than 1 million sick and starving refugees living in squalid conditions in eastern Zaire.
Clinton’s decision clears the way for the United Nations to authorize a Canadian-led international force of between 10,000 and 15,000 troops to deliver relief supplies and separate the combatants in a complex civil war that threatens death to thousands of beleaguered civilians.
U.N. and Canadian officials made it clear that they would not go ahead with the deployment, expected to draw troops from a dozen or more countries, without U.S. participation because Washington has the only adequate airlift and logistics capacity for such an operation.
Most of the non-American troops will be infantry assigned to security duties.
“Close to a million people are in peril, and thousands of them are about to die,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said in announcing the administration’s decision.
However, McCurry said the United States will not participate unless the warring factions agree to a cease-fire that permits international troops to land without having to fight their way in.
This will not be easy because the combatants include Hutu militia members who are interspersed among civilian refugees.
One senior administration official acknowledged that the U.S. government does not even know who speaks for the militia members, many of whom were accused of genocide after a bloody rampage through Rwanda in 1994.
But, the official said, there are indications that conditions have deteriorated so much in recent days that the militias will agree to lay down their weapons because--like others in the camps--they are facing starvation.
McCurry said the international contingent would operate under “robust rules of engagement,” allowing troops to use force in self-defense or to prevent trouble-makers from disrupting their operation.
Officials said that, in effect, the U.S. will insist on a promise of peaceful conditions but will be ready to react if the pledge is not kept.
McCurry said the administration is not yet satisfied with all details of the plan.
White House National Security Advisor Anthony Lake will meet in New York today with U.N. and Canadian officials to complete the planning, he said.
Despite the conditions Clinton placed on U.S. participation, the Pentagon is ready to send Army and Air Force personnel to the region quickly, perhaps early next week.
McCurry said about 1,000 U.S. personnel would be stationed at Goma, the Zairian town on the border with Rwanda and the site closest to the concentrations of refugees.
The rest of the U.S. force, estimated at 2,000 to 4,000, would be based outside of eastern Zaire, operating a Europe-to-Zaire air bridge.
The plan is similar to a U.S. relief operation in July 1994, when about 4,000 U.S. personnel airlifted food and medicine to many of the same refugees who are still in need.
That operation was centered in Goma, but only about 350 Americans were stationed in the center of the crisis-torn region.
This time the force in Zaire is being increased to 1,000 because the situation is much riskier.
Administration officials said the bulk of the U.S. contingent will come from the airborne battalion that led the U.S. deployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier this year. Those troops, normally based in Vicenza, Italy, cleared the way for the later deployment of armored units in Bosnia.
Officials said the paratroopers would be armed with machine guns and small cannons and transported by helicopters and Humvee vehicles. They would protect the Goma airport and secure a three-mile corridor from Goma to Gisenyi on the Rwandan side of the border.
Between 150 and 200 Air Force personnel would also operate the Goma airport, providing air traffic control, refueling and other services, officials said.
A small civil affairs detachment would be sent to deal with the civilian population. This would require a call-up of reserves, but officials declined to say which units would be sent.
Officials said relief supplies will come from stocks owned by the United Nations, Red Cross, U.S. Agency for International Development and private groups.
The supplies will be flown from Europe to staging areas at Entebbe, Uganda, and Kigali, Rwanda, and then to Goma.
Although the immediate purpose of the international force is to alleviate the dire situation in the camps, U.S. officials said the most important long-range objective is to convince refugees from Rwanda that it is safe to return home.
The bulk of the refugees are ethnic Hutus who fled Rwanda in 1994 after a mostly Tutsi rebel force overthrew the Hutu-led government, which was implicated in the slaying of tens of thousands of Tutsis.
The former rebels now control the Rwandan government, and many Hutus are afraid of retaliation if they return home.
Even so, U.S. officials and private relief workers said many refugees would like to return home but are being prevented from doing so by the armed Hutu militia members.
Although U.S. officials hope to break the hold of the militias on the camps, they admit that it would be impossible to identify and disarm the Hutu fighters.
“The mission of this force would not be to disarm militants, to conduct any type of forced entry or to police some of the operations and the refugee camps that have now been established in the border region,” McCurry said.
The decision not to confront the militias in the camps reflects one of the lessons learned three years ago during Washington’s ill-fated intervention in Somalia. Then, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in a firefight in Mogadishu as part of an effort to capture a local warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid.
The administration appears determined to avoid being drawn into taking sides in local, ethnic conflicts.
“The big mistake in Somalia was to move from security to nation-building,” said retired Army Col. Harry Summers, a military strategist and distinguished fellow of the Army War College. “They have recognized now that this is inappropriate. [In Zaire,] they are making a clear-cut distinction between doable military tasks and admirable, but impossible, political goals.”
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Before troops set foot in Central Africa, several conditions must be met, including:
* Officials say it will probably take at least the rest of this week to prepare for the operation and obtain agreements of the governments invovled.
* U.S. troops will not be dispatched until warring factions agree to a cease-fire.
* The mission must be authorized by the U.N Security Council. Action is expected by the end of the week,
* Rules of engagement must be clearly spelled out. Officials are now saying only that the troops will operate under “robust rules of engagement.”
About the Crisis ...
Central Africa, a region where European colonialists imposed modern nation-states and their boundaries upon old and shifting tribal allegiances, has become a tinderbox, riven by ethnic and nationalistic strife. Here’s a look at some of the participants and factors:
* ZAIRE: A nation of great natural wealth--but even more overpowering corruption. Has engaged in running battles with neighboring Rwanda over the more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, mostly Hutus, in giant camps along border.
Founded: June 30, 1960 (formerly the Belgian Congo).
Pop.: 44 million.
* RWANDA: Hutus killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Tutsi-supporting Hutus in 1994 after a plane crash claimed lives of the Rwandan and Burundian presidents. Tutsis now control the government and the military and have been accused of atrocities against Hutus, chasing more than 1 million into Zaire.
Founded: July 1, 1962.
Pop.: 7.8 million.
* BURUNDI: A poor agricultural nation with deep, simmering ethnic divisions that are greatly influenced and inflamed by the fate of its neighbors. Hutus make up about 85% of its population, with Tutsis (15%) and Twa, or Pygmies, (1%) making up the rest. Tutsis control the government.
Founded: July 1, 1962.
Pop: 5.7 million.
* UGANDA: Since the 1960s, this nation suffered two decades of bloodshed because of tribal warfare, strongman governments, rebel activity and coups, leaving more than 800,000 dead. But it has begun a remarkable economic recovery, which, critics say, is imperiled by the autocratic rule of Yoweri Museveni.
Founded: Oct. 9, 1962.
Capital and largest city: Kampala.
Pop.: 21.3 million.
April 1994: Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda die in plane crash. Civil war erupts in Rwanda.
July 1994: Rebel Tutsi forces proclaim victory; refugees pour into Zaire.
August 1994: Thousands of refugees die while U.S. military struggles to set up relief operation.
August 1995: U.N. reaches agreement with Zaire to end forced expulsions of Rwandan and Burundian refugees.
October 1996: Most Hutu refugees flee camps in eastern Zaire because of fighting.
November 1996: Aid workers flee Goma fighting; international relief effort begins.
Sources: Times staff and wire reports