Mandela ready to send in troops as the West hangs back

Arms are flowing to the rebels from Rwanda, Uganda and Angola, writes Christopher Bellamy
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The Independent Online
Emerging plans for an international operation to intervene in Zaire were trapped in a vicious circle last night. No Western power seems prepared to intervene without a clear objective and a clear picture of what they are going into, although, Spain and France may send in a UN- approved rapid-deployment force ahead of any UN relief operation. "The United Nations is going to send its own task force but before, with more urgency, the UN may allow the dispatch of a rapid force," a Spanish defence ministry spokesman said. "It may only be Spain and France." Spain has placed 1,000 troops on alert for the mission.

And in Johannesburg, President Nelson Mandela yesterday said he was prepared to send South African troops to central Africa as part of an international force, although he added that he had not decided how big a unit to commit.

Little is known about the principal warring factions: the mainly Tutsi rebels within Zaire, known as the Banyamulenge - "people from the Mulenge hills"; the mainly Hutu former Rwandan government troops who have been sheltering in the refugee camps in Zaire, known as the Interahamwe - "those who fight together"; and the Zairean forces.

The Interahamwe are estimated to be 40,000 strong. There are about 400,000 Banyamulenge people, suggesting they could also field a force of up to 40,000 fighting troops. They are relatively well-disciplined, and control all three airfields in the region: Goma, Bukavu and Kivu, which would make any attempt by the Zairean government to move troops into the area very difficult.

Africa is awash with arms, though mainly the smaller variety - rifles, machineguns, hand-held anti-tank weapons and mines. They tend to flow to where the market is best. The Banyamulenge have been lying low for some time and would have acquired arms over many years.

More recent supplies come from four main sources: those they have bought or captured from the ill-disciplined Zairean army; from Rwanda - where some of their number fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Army against the Hutus two years ago; from Uganda, where many members of the current Rwandan government were educated and which may have turned a blind eye to arms shipments into north-eastern Zaire; and lastly from Angola. During the Angolan civil war, arms flowed from Zaire's Shaba province into Angola. Recently, it seems they have started flowing back again via South African and US arms dealers.

Some of the mainly Hutu Interahamwe took part in the genocide against Tutsis two years ago, and have been hiding out in the Zairean refugee camps. They are now being driven east by the Banyamulenge. They took arms with them when they fled two years ago. There have been rumours that the French had been resupplying them. The French have denied this categorically and it seems unlikely that they would have continued to do so after the genocide of 1994. However, some arms did pass to the Hutu groups through Goma, with the connivance of the Zairean authorities.

Over the past few days, the main Western powers have moved from extreme unwillingness to intervene to one where they will consider intervention if they are given a clear job to do. Two possibilities have been discussed: the creation of a safe area around an airport where the refugees could be concentrated, and the creation of corridors to enable refugees to return gradually to Rwanda.

A senior diplomat in Nairobi said: "No one knows the exact situation on the ground, no one knows what the intervention force would do - intervene between whom and whom?" Nicholas Burns, a US State Department spokesman, said: "You can't go rushing in with troops without knowing what the mission is."

The French were to the fore in proposing intervention, and seemed the most likely to lead the operation. But there are grave reservations because of their history in the area and former support for the Hutus.

The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, yesterday tried to calm reports of differences between France and the US. "There were some bitter words exchanged between our two countries and I believe such exchanges were unfortunate," he said. Mr de Charette said France was ready to contribute 1,000 troops to a multinational force.