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U.S. Troops to Enter Zaire Without Formal Cease-Fire

By Thomas W. Lippman and Dana Priest
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

U.S. troops bound for eastern Zaire as part of an international military mission to aid starving Rwandan refugees are likely to enter the area without a formal cease-fire among warring tribal factions there, the Pentagon said Thursday.

"If we can get a written, signed document, we would like to," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said, "but I don't think we can, so we are looking for a pledge" or oral commitment that the rescue mission would not come under attack.

The comments by Bacon and other U.S. officials Thursday underlined the high degree of uncertainty about conditions in the Central African region and the dangers that the Canadian-led force may expect to face when it begins deployment to the Zaire-Rwanda border, probably early next week.

President Clinton on Wednesday approved U.S. participation in the planned force subject to several conditions, and as of Thursday night some of those conditions had not been met. "There are funding issues, command and control issues, all manner of issues that have to be worked out before we know for certain whether we, the United States, can give the high sign and go forward and be part of this," State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said.

Neither Rwanda nor Zaire has yet offered formal assurance that the military operation could proceed unhindered, nor have the well-armed Rwandan Hutu militias, which perhaps pose the biggest potential threat to the foreign troops.

The Hutu militias, which control the area with the biggest encampment of refugees, are the same groups believed responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide and have been battling rival Tutsi rebels in the border region. There were reports Thursday of sustained shelling in the area around the Zairean town of Goma, where U.S. troops would secure the airport.

The total U.S. contingent, including support personnel in neighboring countries, will be up to 5,000 troops. Of those, approximately 1,000 are to be positioned on the ground inside Zaire guarding the Goma airport and a three-mile stretch of road from Goma to the Rwandan border.

Under these plans, U.S. forces would be positioned in a zone controlled by Zairean Tutsi rebels not believed hostile to the international deployment. It is not clear which nation's troops would go into the more dangerous area west of Goma to confront the Hutu militias.

Key questions about the mission remained unanswered Thursday night: How can aid reach an estimated 500,000 refugees held as virtual hostages by Hutu militias at a camp just west of Goma? Where are the rest of the estimated 1.1 million refugees? How is the planned U.S. participation to be funded?

Despite all the uncertainties and potential dangers, however, it appeared almost certain that the United States will participate in the rescue mission because tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of people face death from thirst and starvation if Washington backs out.

According to U.S. and Canadian officials and independent analysts, the entire rescue mission would probably have to be scrubbed if the United States decided to pull out because no other military has the airlift capability and jungle-environment equipment the United States would provide.

"You have the people, the equipment, the knowhow, the numbers," a Canadian official said. "There is no one who can match what the United States can do."

With the Canadians planning a force of some 15,000 troops from a dozen nations, "the only military capable of moving men and materiel in significant amounts anywhere in the globe is the United States, and that's including Russia and China," said Robert Gaskin, vice president of the American Logistics Association and a former Air Force colonel.

White House national-security adviser Anthony Lake and other officials met in New York Thursday with Lt. Gen. Maurice Baril, the Canadian officer who is to lead the multinational force, and other Canadian officials to negotiate the operational details of the mission.

Their goal, officials of both countries said, is a U.N. Security Council resolution that would approve the deployment and specify what the force is to do and - perhaps more important - not do. The United States insists that the force not intervene in any fighting or undertake police duties at refugee camps.

The force would try to create conditions for refugees wishing to return to Rwanda to do so safely, a major goal of the operation, but it would not take on the Hutu militias, which have been intimidating the refugees into staying under their control in Zaire.