The Pentagon announced a scaled-back plan Tuesday to send about 200 U.S. military personnel to Rwanda and another 600 to neighboring African states as part of a still-evolving multinational relief effort, amid disagreement over just how much the central African refugee crisis has eased.
The Rwandan government proclaimed the refugee crisis over, declaring virtually no Hutu refugees remained in Zaire following a weekend exodus that brought hundreds of thousands of them home to Rwanda. But United Nations officials and private aid agencies continued to maintain that more than half a million refugees still are wandering the hills of eastern Zaire without food or water.
U.S. officials expressed uncertainty over the size of the remaining refugee population and cautioned that some international military intervention in Zaire may yet prove necessary. Defense Secretary William J. Perry said that while U.S. forces are preparing for a limited logistical operation flying food and humanitarian supplies into the Rwandan capital of Kigali, the effort may have to expand.
As now envisioned, the U.S. role would be considerably smaller and tamer than the one outlined last week by President Clinton, who had agreed in principle to dispatch a U.S. force about five times larger and more heavily armed to secure an airfield in eastern Zaire and corridors for delivering aid.
Instead of combat teams backed by helicopter gunships, Washington officials now foresee a U.S. military contingent in Kigali consisting largely of air traffic controllers, cargo handlers, civil affairs specialists and various support personnel. Other hubs for cargo flights are to be established in Entebbe, Uganda and Mombasa, Kenya.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said American troops would be responsible simply for getting the aid into Kigali, not delivering it to the refugees. That would remain the task of Rwandan authorities, U.N. representatives and private aid groups.
What prompted U.S. authorities to revise plans for the emergency relief operation were the massive return of Hutu refugees and the cessation of fighting in eastern Zaire. The turning point came when Zairian rebel forces with ties to Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government attacked a giant refugee camp near the Zairian border town of Goma, routing the armed Rwandan Hutu extremists who had kept the refugees from going home for two years.
Canada, which had offered to lead a multinational rescue force authorized last week by the U.N. Security Council, said Tuesday that the mission is on hold pending evaluations and coordination meetings this week in New York and Stuttgart, Germany. “Decisions are not being made until those evaluations are finished,” Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said in Ottawa.
While the potential threat to any international force appeared to have eased, and the scale of the refugee problem has diminished, U.S. and Canadian officials were not prepared to declare the crisis over.
“I must emphasize that this situation remains fluid,” Perry said. “For the moment, the peaceful return of so many refugees is a very positive development, but there still remain hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced outside the camps in Zaire.”
Recent weeks of fighting forced aid workers to evacuate, so no one was tracking refugees.
But U.N. officials said they suspect between 500,000 and 600,000 Rwandans remain in Zaire. They said American reconnaissance planes have spotted an estimated 550,000 refugees still in eastern Zaire.