West Split on Sending Troops to Zaire

UN postpones a decision on a military force that would help refugees

Two weeks after aid workers were forced to abandon eastern Zaire's refugees to ethnic fighting, the world still struggles to respond.

The United Nations sent advance humanitarian teams into eastern Zaire yesterday as small groups of refugees straggled out of the forest, where they had fled. But the rapid, multilateral response envisioned by France has stalled. On Saturday the Security Council called on UN members to prepare a force, but postponed authorizing its deployment.

Unlike the 1992 Somali famine that prompted a UN-mandated armed intervention, the refugees' flight from strife-torn camps has not played out before television cameras. Journalists were cut off from 1 million refugees and civilians who fled to the interior when aid workers left the camps Nov. 2.

Aid agencies speculate that famine and epidemics may already have taken a toll on these groups. But even before images of their trek reach living rooms, the blame game has begun in earnest.

French diplomats, who early on called for an international force to secure the area for aid efforts, call the delay "spineless." A British diplomat dubbed the French plan "daft," and American officials insist they need time to prepare so that the mission will not make matters worse.

The French proposal called for 5,000 troops, drawn from American, African, and European forces, to mount an "extremely urgent" humanitarian operation under a United Nations mandate. This weekend, French officials added that such a force should be under US command.

"US participation in such an operation is essential. Because of its world-wide role, this great democracy cannot remain indifferent to the unprecedented human drama that is unfolding in central Africa," said foreign ministry spokesman Jacques Rummelhardt.

American officials say they are studying the French plan, but won't rush into a mission without clear definitions of what US troops would be able to do and a strategy on how and when they would leave.

They are also clearly concerned about a possible repeat of the US-led Somalia antifamine intervention, during which 18 US troops died in October 1993.

"We don't want to rush in and do anything that will make the situation worse or create the next refugee situation," says a US official in Washington. "Our problem is that the French are trying to push us into something we're not prepared to do. We can't go in with guns blazing and don't want to make it worse than it is."

Issues Americans want to see resolved before any international force takes the field include: What should be done when such a force comes upon known perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide wanted by international authorities? Should refugees resettle in border camps or return to their homes in Rwanda?

French officials have argued that the refugees would be endangered if forced to return to Rwanda, where many are believed to be implicated in the 1994 genocide that killed more than 500,000 people. Until recently, they have insisted on returning refugees to UN border camps.

Spain, Germany, and Italy have supported the French plan. British Prime Minister John Major backed the concept of an international solution in a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac last Thursday, but did not promise to commit troops.

Rwanda opposes any involvement of French troops in an international mission, charging that France allowed Hutus responsible for the 1994 genocide to leave the country with their weapons during Operation Turquoise. In addition, secessionist-minded rebel forces in Zaire fear that Paris is trying to prop up the 31-year dictatorship of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, who is in France after medical treatment in Switzerland.

ONE rebel leader, Laurent Dsir Kabila, said rebels would accept an "intervention force" on the condition that France did not take part.

Several Western diplomats based in Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, say France is taking the lead on the proposal for a peace force for Zaire to maintain its loosening hold in the region.

"Paris feels that it lost much diplomatic clout in the failed Operation Turquoise of 1994, and the ensuing installation of an Anglophone government in Kigali [Rwanda's capital]," says one senior Western diplomat in Kinshasa.

French diplomats deny their country is acting in Zaire out of anything but humanitarian concern.

"Simply put, we are the fourth most powerful nation in the world, and we respect certain values. It is therefore our responsibility to seek to solve this humanitarian crisis," said French Foreign Minister Herv de Charette on Sunday in the daily Le Parisien.

However, other members of the diplomatic corps say that France is largely doing what it has openly stated was its aim: protecting the cultural, economic, military, and diplomatic influence of France in Africa, without which it fears it would lose prestige.

The Western diplomat noted France's criticism of an African peacekeeping force proposed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher on a trip to Africa last month. The visit and the proposal, the diplomat said, were meant to threaten France's view that the initiative should come from Paris.

"What we're seeing now, is neither in the short nor long term, any question of conflict of interest between the US and France in Africa," Mr. de Charette said.

Many diplomats increasingly believe the proposed force will not materialize, and that if it does it may be too late to help the refugees.

There is also a limited, albeit increasing, view among aid workers and diplomats that the disaster might not be as apocalyptic as feared. Proponents of this view point to the trickle of refugees who have emerged from the bush weak but apparently nourished on roots, leaves, and other foodstuffs found in the forest.

Aid workers say chances of survival against famine and epidemics are greater if the refugees dispersed and kept moving. Satellite pictures have not shown masses of people on the move, raising the mystery of where they have gone, diplomats say.

The Paris-based Doctors without Borders estimates that 13,600 refugees and Zairean civilians have already died in the trek, and Red Cross officials say if a cholera epidemic strikes, 100,000 to 150,000 people could die quickly. The worst case scenario, aid agencies say, is that some 1 million people are in danger of hunger, disease, or thirst.

The British-based aid agency Oxfam, joined Doctors without Borders in calls for swift deployment of troops into Zaire to save lives.

"We don't know where all these people are, but we know that some have been on the road for more than three weeks without access to food and water. If they were visible on television screens, we would have action now," says Oxfam spokesman Ian Bray.

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