Aid force aims for the heart of darkness

Shelling of Goma, threats to French and warnings from Rwanda suggest mission may get hot reception Shelling of Goma, warnings from Rwanda and threats to French suggest force may get a hot welcome
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Britain and the United States belatedly signed up for a humanitarian force to deliver aid to refugees in Zaire yesterday. But Washington attached several conditions to participation. And the military situation on the ground will present stiff challenges.

The first problem is lack of information. The situation in eastern Zaire is much as depicted in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a century ago. Zaire is a vast area, the size of western Europe, the east of which is populated by more than 1 million refugees. They include up to 40,000 Hutu Interahamwe, who took part in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, rebel Zairean Tutsis or Banyamulenge, and other armed groups.

Over the past two weeks plans for intervention have been stalled in a vicious circle, with all the western powers refusing to commit themselves without a clear United Nations mandate and a clear picture of what they would be going into. Spy satellites have proved useless in finding out what exactly is happening in the forested hills of eastern Zaire and who, exactly, is fighting whom, and where.

An estimated 1.2 million refugees, mainly Hutus who fled from Rwanda two years ago and displaced Zaireans, are roaming the ravaged landscape. But without troops on the ground, there is no hope of finding out. "No- one knows what's happening in the field. It's the rainy season and even American satellites are useless. Until we send scouts there, we won't know," one French officer said".

The United States says that details of its plans will only be worked out after a report from a Pentagon team in Uganda to assess the refugee situation on the ground. Major-General Edward Smith, commander of the Southern European Task Force, and a 40-strong team, arrived in Kampala, yesterday to start planning relief operations. They are expected to visit Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania and centres in eastern Zaire.

Washington is expected to be ready to contribute up to 5,000 troops to the operation, with the prime mission of securing the airport at Goma in eastern Zaire and providing equipment and logistical support. But Washington is insistent that any UN operation to help the hundreds of thousands of trapped Hutu refugees must have a tightly defined mission, to avoid any repetition of events in Somalia in 1993, when more than a dozen US soldiers were killed in fighting.

William Perry, US Defense Secretary, yesterday said that though the multinational force force would be under the command of a Canadian general it would have an American general as the deputy commander. He said he wanted a clear definition of the mission, an "exit strategy" and a command structure.

He stressed that a decision to participate was contingent on securing commitments from African countries involved, principally Zaire and Rwanda, not to interfere. "Our assumption is that we would have their acquiesence," he said. Mike McCurry, a presidential spokesman, said the US would not try to disarm militants or conduct any kind of "forced entry". Britain, too, was cautious, apparently reflecting the reservations expressed in Cabinet by Michael Portillo, Defence Secretary. All of these conditions will present problems.

Delivering aid in a country where there is no clear authority is, as the UN found in Bosnia, not easy. The UN said yesterday that it had reached an agreement with Laurent Kabila, head of the rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation, for delivering aid. But the rebels themselves have a somewhat tenuous hold on Goma. Yesterday they came under heavy artillery fire from the area where Rwandan Hutu militia are believed to be camped, seven miles northwest of the city. "It is a signal of what things could be like if we want to mount a major operation in Goma." said Michelle Quintaglie, a UN World Food Programe spokeswoman. But both the US and Britain insist they will not disarm the militias.

French participation in the force will also be a problem. France drew criticism when it intervened in the Rwanda crisis in 1994, so France is regarded as far from neutral. Andre Ngundu Kissasse, a Zairean rebel commander, underlined yesterday that French participation was unacceptable and said his troops would consider shooting at French soldiers.

Rwanda's president said that foreign intervention in Zaire would get messy unless the rebels were consulted. "To the best of my knowledge the United Nations has not consulted the people controlling eastern Zaire. But in order for this operation to work they must secure the airports of Uvira, Bukavu and Goma," said President Pasteur Bizimungu. "If they do not negotiate this with the rebels then they will be declaring war and it will be messy," the president, a member of the Hutu majority, added in an interview in Rwanda's capital, Kigali.

The worst eventuality would be involvement in a broader conflict, which could bring in the states neighbouring Zaire. Rwanda and Uganda are both thought to have aided the Zairean anti-government troops and yesterday Uganda reported that it had fought off an attack from Zaire. "The government of Uganda wishes it to be known that there were two armed attacks on its territory this morning," said Martin Aliker, minister of state for international co-operation. In this environment of uncertainty and conflict, the prospects for the mission look difficult.