West struck by second thoughts on Zaire force

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The Independent Online
The British and US governments yesterday changed their minds about sending ground forces to Zaire, throwing the size, scope - and even the existence - of the proposed, international relief force into confusion.

The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, said British plans were "on hold". The US government said that it was ready to help with transport, logistics, food, medicine and cash, but not ground troops. Other countries - notably France - are still prepared to go ahead but some hurried re-thinking of international plans will be necessary when the contributing countries meet in Stuttgart tomorrow.

Since the remnants of the genocidal Hutu army fled into the Zairean bush on Friday, over 500,000 Hutu refugees have abandoned their camps in eastern Zaire and plodded back towards their homes in Rwanda. The exodus has removed the most obvious reason for the deployment of an international force: the creation of "safe" corridors to encourage Hutu civilians to break with the murderous former soldiers and return home.

Aid agencies, led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), pointed out yesterday that up to 700,000 other Hutu refugees remained in Zaire, some in the southern camps around Bukavu cut off by Zairean rebels, others scattered in the vast forests to the west.

They said that an international force was still needed to locate and succour them. The French President, Jacques Chirac, also said that a multinational force was needed to provide security for "airfields and food convoys."

A senior EU official caused even greater confusion by suggesting that the mandate of the international force should be changed to help the Zairean government regain control of the eastern part of the country from the triumphant, mainly-Tutsi rebels. The comments by Aldo Ajello, the EU representative in Kinshasa, will kindle suspicion that the real objective of some Western governments (notably the French) is to shore-up the collapsing Zairean state.

Mr Portillo said he could not authorise the proposed deployment of 1,500 to 3,500 British troops in the current "information vacuum", with vast numbers of refugees moving beneath the forest canopy. An RAF Canberra reconnaissance plane is being sent which can get below the cloud which has blinded US U-2 spy planes and satellites.

Speaking in Moscow, where he is on a 2-day visit, Mr Portillo said: "We don't have evidence from the south and therefore we must prudently assume that between half a million and one million refugees are unaccounted for.

"Therefore I have decided to do two things," he said. "A Canberra P9 reconnaissance plane will be sent and Britain will also work with the governments in the area to initiate an information campaign to tell people of the large scale movements that have already taken place and, it is hoped, to stimulate others to separate themselves from the local militias and go home."

The Rwandan government insisted yesterday that the back of the humanitarian crisis was broken. All that was now needed was for the world to supply immense quantities of aid to the returning refugees in Rwanda itself. The foreign minister, Anastase Gasana declared that there were no more Rwandan civilians in eastern Zaire "with the exception of a few stragglers."

The UNHCR insisted, however, that there were 500,000 Hutus in the Bukavu region alone, prevented from returning home by the presence of Zairean Tutsi rebel forces between them and the Rwandan border. Rebel leaders admitted that this was the case - implicitly contradicting their allies in the Rwandan government - and offered to open up a safe corridor for the Bukavu refugees today. If this happens, and another immense log-jam of humanity is dislodged, the case for an international, military force will appear even more shaky.

Officials and senior military officers from the nations offering to join a proposed force of 10,000-12,000 troops will meet in Stuttgart tomorrow to decide the mission's fate. Even Canada, which had agreed to lead the force, appeared to be having doubts yesterday, at least about the scale of the operation. The Defence Minister, Doug Young, said in Ottawa that, if conditions continued to improve, the force might be reduced to a number of humanitarian relief units. "If we get the results hoped for, and people can return to their home countries, and humanitarian organisations can do their work without being in danger, then the mission becomes unnecessary," Mr Young said. "No one wants to go to Zaire or Rwanda for Christmas."

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