As astonished Rwandan refugees looked on from outside the barbed wire perimeter of the airport, the US Secretary of Defence, William Perry, said: 'My heart is torn by the human tragedy that is unfolding here in Goma.' International relief operations aimed at aiding the more than 1 million Rwandans who poured through the town two weeks ago, 'have truly turned the corner', he said.
Mr Perry announced that earlier in the day US military personnel had opened the airport in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to a round-the-clock operation, which would greatly speed delivery of emergency relief supplies to Rwandans in a half dozen UN refugee camps in north eastern Zaire, as well as to Rwandans returning home.
Mr Perry emphasised that the motives behind the US intervention in Rwanda, the first since its military mission in Somalia that cost the lives of 30 Americans, were purely humanitarian. 'We're not in a position to provide peace- keeping support to Rwandan refugees who fear retaliation if they return home. The Pentagon will maintain a security detachment in Kigali to protect US soldiers but not deploy any combat troops in Rwanda' said Mr Perry.
He flew here this afternoon following a half hour meeting in Kigali with the new Rwandan president, Pasteur Eizimungu, and the vice-president and defence minister, Paul Kigame, during which safety for returning Rwandans was discussed.
The US Lieutenant-General Daniel Schroeder also took part in the talks; he said that the Rwandan leaders were told that Washington would welcome their request for assistance in any efforts it undertook to reassure Rwandans in Zaire that their safety would be guaranteed upon returning home. He insisted that the Rwandan government, not the United States, would be the ultimate guarantor of the returnees' safety.
General Schroeder who is heading the US joint task force in Rwanda, refused to set a ceiling on the size of the US military contingent that would be deployed to Rwanda and neighbouring countries to carry out the relief mission; today the numbers surpassed 1,000. Nor would he set a deadline for withdrawal. 'We'll be here as long as it takes,' he said.
While Mr Perry and his entourage were eager to allay concern about the future course of Washington humanitarian intervention in Rwanda, the visiting French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, was eager to put the best possible face on his government's own efforts which are due to end on 21 August.
'France has assumed its international responsibility' Mr Balladur proclaimed to reporters. 'France can be trusted.' Paris would continue to provide relief supplies following its scheduled withdrawal of 3,000 French troops and would reconsider those plans only if 'new disorders' broke out.
The US Defence Secretary's visit came amid doubts about the effectiveness of Washington's own aid effort. Since President Bill Clinton ordered his government 10 days ago to implement a 'practical plan of action' for dealing with the outbreak of cholera among Rwandan refugees, the US initiative has been crippled by tentativeness. Although the US delivered two water purification systems to Goma last week to address the refugees' most urgent need, delivery has been crippled by the availability of only nine tanker trucks to transport it.