WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration, trying to stave off a looming tragedy of enormous proportions in central Africa, is stepping up its effort to deliver medicine, food and a semblance of order to millions of Rwandan refugees.
President Clinton, acting in the face of criticism that his administration has not done enough, said yesterday he had directed Pentagon and national security officials to present him immediately with a plan "that can make a difference." He added that the United States would "lead the United Nations in responding to . . . this human catastrophe."
Moments before making that statement -- his first extended comments about Rwanda -- Mr. Clinton met with Brian Atwood, an official with the Agency for International Development who returned from Africa with a grim forecast of what awaits the millions who fled Rwanda for Zaire in the past few days.
At a White House briefing yesterday, a somber-faced Mr. Atwood said the United Nations' first priority is to halt a cholera epidemic, which already has killed hundreds of the refugees and infected thousands. He said the United States was rushing thousands of tons of medical supplies and fresh water to the region to meet this threat.
He said the second priority was getting food into Rwanda so the millions of refugees overwhelming Rwanda's neighboring nations will be encouraged to return home.
Clinton administration officials, starting with the president, have been stung by criticism from international aid organizations that the United States was doing too little too late. The president pointed out that the administration already had committed $120 million, and Mr. Atwood announced $35 million in new aid, on top of $41 million approved a few days ago.
Mr. Clinton also promised to speak about Rwanda more fully to the nation later today.
White House and Pentagon officials continued to rule out U.S. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, but said that U.S. troops would be sent in to protect the military engineers and specialists, if necessary.
At the Pentagon, officials said that the scope of the U.S. contribution was limited by "the bottleneck" at the airport at Goma in Zaire, the epicenter of the human suffering, which can handle only one supply plane at a time.
"The biggest problem is that there is one airfield that is already saturated," said Kathleen de Laski, the Pentagon spokeswoman. There is right now a plane on the ground all the time. . . . We have landed every plane that we could have landed so far."
Donald Steinberg, a State Department official who works closely with the White House National Security Council, also said that the United States has contributed more security equipment, such as armed personnel carriers, than any other nation, including those with historical ties to Rwanda.
Inside the Pentagon, a task force is working 24 hours a day to organize the relief effort.
A team of four U.S. communications and logistics experts arrived in Zaire yesterday. They will be joined tomorrow by 25 U.S. military engineers, medical and other crisis experts.
They will try to locate extra airfields or assess what would be needed to build a new landing strip at Goma to take the 500 tons of food a day and the other medical, sanitary and living supplies that will be needed to prevent tens of thousands more deaths.
A Lockheed P-3 Orion surveillance plane will be deployed today to photograph the area. Its pictures, to be analyzed by military experts in the U.S. European Command, will allow a more accurate count and pinpoint the locations of the refugees, identify roads or tracks that might be improved to reach them, pinpoint water supplies, and show where the available power lines run.
Tomorrow, the first of 40 relief flights by U.S.-chartered DC-8s will begin carrying 1,300 tons of rice from Nairobi to Goma. Two Air Force C-5 Galaxies, loaded with vehicles and medical supplies for the International Committee of the Red Cross, flew yesterday from Copenhagen, Denmark, and Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Nairobi, Kenya.
The fourth and final flight by a chartered flight carrying plastic sheeting for shelter from Nairobi was to arrive in Goma today.