The Clinton administration is sending “several hundred” U.S. troops into western Africa to prepare for a possible evacuation of more than 500 Americans from Zaire, the Pentagon said Friday.
The move came as the State Department warned U.S. citizens to defer all travel to that country because of the potential for unrest.
Officials stressed that no order has been issued for an evacuation from Zaire and that the troop movement is strictly a precautionary measure.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Pentagon sources said the U.S. forces had already begun their movement toward Africa as part of a “joint task force.” They said up to 250 U.S. military men and women were being moved into the region just north and west of Zaire.
The troops primarily are coming from an Army airborne unit based in Italy. Forces from other services are included, as well as members of the U.S. Air Force Transportation Command, which is based in the United States, the sources said.
Officials said two Marine amphibious ships also are expected to leave the Adriatic Sea and head into Mediterranean waters in case they are called upon to sail further south.
The ships, the USS Nassau and the USS Pensacola, had been part of the effort to help Americans leave Albania as a result of civil unrest in the Balkan nation. Officials said the flow of Americans has dropped during the past several days, allowing the ships to be detached from that effort.
“The Department of Defense has directed the U.S. European Command to deploy enabling forces, consisting of several hundred personnel, as part of contingency planning for a possible future evacuation from Zaire,” a Pentagon statement said.
“This deployment does not represent a U.S. commitment to any particular course of action,” the statement added.
Zaire has been in a civil war since last September. In that time, much of the eastern part of the nation has fallen to rebels who accuse President Mobutu Sese Seko of robbing the country to enrich himself. The rebels say they won’t stop their offensive until they reach the capital of Kinshasa.
After undergoing treatment in Europe for prostate cancer, Mobutu returned to the capital Friday for the first time since early January.
At the State Department, spokesman Nicholas Burns said 35 dependents of U.S. government employees were expected to leave Zaire by the end of the day Friday.