As rebels converge on Kisangani, the capital of northeast Zaire, France and the United States are facing off for a second time over what is to be done.
France is calling for an international relief operation to supply Kisangani, the last government-held city in the east, and the tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees pressed up against the Zaire River at Ubundu, 60 miles south.
"The humanitarian situation in Zaire is tragic. No one can ignore it any longer.... We have to ask if there is not a sort of conspiracy of silence," said French government spokesman Alain Lamassoure Tuesday. Yesterday, France called on the European Union to join an international operation to secure eastern Zaire for aid operations.
Washington opposes such a mission, as it did when the French first proposed it on Nov. 3. Americans say that any international relief mission needs to be clearly defined and has little hope of succeeding unless both sides in Zaire's civil war agree to a cease-fire.
"We are not prepared right now to sign on to a multinational force," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Tuesday. "We think that actually what's being done is the best way to help the refugees and stop the fighting - to pursue the cease-fire and continue to encourage the United Nations to deliver this humanitarian assistance."
French historian Gerard Prunir says what's driving both nations is a clash of syndromes. For the Americans, it's the "Somali syndrome," a reference to the 1993 Somali antifamine intervention, during which 18 US soldiers were killed.
For the French, it's the "Fashoda syndrome," a reference to a 1898 encounter between French and British forces that forced France to withdraw from the Nile. It became a symbol in France for the desires of the "Anglo-Saxon world" to limit France's influence in Africa.
When France first called for an international force after rebels overran refugee camps in eastern Zaire in October, French diplomats argued that US participation was critical. US airlift capability has been important in all major UN operations.
But in its latest round of proposals, France has not insisted that US participation is essential. This week, the French press reported leaks from "good French sources" that France is prepared to intervene under a UN mandate "without the Americans." French diplomats would not confirm or deny such reports.
"Our purpose is humanitarian, not military, and the goal is to get assistance to people who are desperately in need of aid," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Yves Doutriaud yesterday.
"But if the cease-fire does not materialize, we must secure conditions for humanitarian aid. The important point is to get aid to the refugees. We would prefer to do it with the Americans," he added.
US officials say they will not be pressured by the French into a badly prepared operation. "You can try to have soldiers stand between people going at each other with machetes, but without a political settlement, they will pick up after you're gone," a US official says.
On a visit to Zaire this week, French Secretary of State for Humanitarian Action Xavier Emmanuelli encouraged refugees to cross the Zaire River to have better access to food and assistance - a move that UN officials say could make matters worse. "If the refugees cross the river, there is no way we will be able to help them," says Fernando del Mundo, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency. "They are likely just to continue fleeing to the west, where there are no airports or railroad lines. Ubundu is the place to put in infrastructure and open corridors, instead of sending refugees on to an uncertain future in this vast country."
Other relief agencies echo these concerns, but add that world leaders need to make this issue a greater priority. "You can't just throw rehydration salt, biscuits, and clean water supplies at these problems. Humanitarian aid has to be there, but diplomatic, political, and economic action has to be there as well. Unless you engage with this region and give it the diplomatic priority it deserves, the war will widen and lots of little people will suffer," says Ian Bray, a spokesman for British-based Oxfam International.