WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has agreed "in principle" to send a military force of up to 5,000 Americans to Central Africa as part of an international relief effort in eastern Zaire, a White House spokesman announced yesterday.
Along with Britain's announcement that it was willing to join a rescue force, relief for hundreds of thou- sands of starving refugees in Zaire seems to draw closer.
A final decision on a U.S. deployment, which would include about 1,000 ground troops, could be made within a matter of days.
Pentagon officials are to provide details this week about the units that would be involved in the mission, which the Clinton administration expects to last four months.
"The United States is willing, in principle, to participate in a limited fashion as long as certain conditions are stipulated to," said White House press secretary Mike McCurry. "Our interests here are largely humanitarian, to save lives."
Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees have been stranded in eastern Zaire over the past month by fighting among rebel Tutsi forces, Rwandan Hutu militiamen and the Zairian army. Thousands of refugees reportedly have already died of hunger, and cholera is spreading through the hills where an estimated 250,000 refugees fled from the fighting.
Heavy artillery fired into Goma, Zaire, halted aid distribution there and was blamed on Rwandan Hutu militiamen who are against the international intervention.
Canada has offered to lead a multinational rescue mission to deliver food and other supplies to the roughly 1 million refugees on the Zaire-Rwanda border.
The Canadians envision a security force of between 10,000 and 15,000 soldiers from more than a dozen nations which would protect the nongovernmental relief agencies that are providing assistance.
The troops would secure a 3-mile-long corridor leading out of Goma in the hope of persuading Rwandans to return from Zaire to their country, which about 1 million mostly Hutu refugees fled in 1994, fearing retaliation for the massacre of more than 500,000 Tutsis.
After talks Tuesday night at the White House between national security adviser Anthony Lake and Canadian officials, Clinton consulted by telephone yesterday morning with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, according to McCurry.
Among the issues to be worked out before Clinton will give final approval to U.S. military involvement, the spokesman said, are the precise terms of the international mission, which also must be approved by the United Nations Security Council.
The international mission would not be involved in disarming rebel forces, conducting a forced entry into the country or policing the refugee camps, McCurry said. He said the multinational force would not be sent in until the governments of Zaire and Rwanda, as well as local military leaders in the area, agreed not to oppose them.
None of this appeared guaranteed last night.
U.S. troops in Zaire would be mainly responsible for securing the airfield at Goma, the main relief site, and guarding the corridor to Rwanda that would allow refugees to return home.
Most of the U.S. soldiers in the region would be providing support to the ground troops and would be located outside the borders of Zaire.
Army Maj. Gen. Edward P. Smith arrived in Uganda yesterday on a mission to assess what kind of security would be necessary for U.S. troops. Uganda borders both Zaire and Rwanda.
During the presidential campaign that ended last week, Republican nominee Bob Dole repeatedly attacked Clinton for adopting a foreign policy that favored multinational solutions to regional problems. One of Dole's most reliable applause lines was a vow that, if elected, he would serve as commander in chief of American forces, "not Boutros Boutros-Ghali or any other U.N. secretary general."
Yesterday, the White House spokesman took pains to emphasize that U.S. soldiers in the field "would remain at all times under U.S. command," though a Canadian officer would command the overall multinational force. The rules of engagement for members of the international military mission "would be sufficiently robust so forces could protect themselves," McCurry said.
The subject of sending U.S. troops to Zaire did not come up when the crisis there began to develop in the last days of the '96 campaign, though Clinton was pressed in private by African-American leaders, who urged the United States to become more involved.
McCurry defended Clinton's decision to follow Canada's lead, rather than having the United States spearhead the international mission.
"We are not the world's superpoliceman to address each and every condition that exists anywhere in the world," the press secretary said. He added that U.S. participation in the international force would encourage other nations to join.
But most of the questions yesterday focused on why Clinton had TTC decided to act now -- and whether the administration was in danger of creating a situation similar to the ill-fated American involvement in the U.N. mission to Somalia that left 30 U.S. soldiers dead and 175 wounded in combat, and cost an estimated $1.2 billion.
"We're very concerned about it. This smells like Somalia all over again. We don't want a repetition of what happened to those Rangers in Mogadishu," said Marc Theissen, press spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Nobody's against humanitarian relief [but] we're very concerned about putting American troops at risk."
McCurry said the administration's decision to move slowly in joining the Canadian-led effort "reflects our desire to have a very carefully constructed mission that avoids some of the pitfalls we've seen in the past."
Pub Date: 11/14/96