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Zaire military option ruled out

Western military officials failed to agree yesterday on intervention in eastern Zaire, and their estimate of the number of refugees signalled a rapidly waning interest in the crisis.

After a three-day meeting in Stuttgart, representatives of 29 countries and six humanitarian groups said they had discarded the option of a full- scale military operation, which would have been based in eastern Zaire or on the other side of the Rwandan border.

Participants appeared to accept United States estimates of the number of refugees trapped in Zaire. The US, reluctant to launch a big military operation, has counted 250,000 refugees still in Zaire, while humanitarian organisations continue to cite figures up to 700,000.

The meeting endorsed a lower level of involvement, ranging from "assistance" in the distribution of aid to "increased level of protection and security" for humanitarian relief.

Lieutenant-General Maurice Baril, of Canada, designated to lead any multinational force to help refugees, said the decision to participate in such operations was left to individual governments. "The objectives of such a force would be strictly humanitarian. The force would be politically and militarily neutral," Gen Baril said.

He did not give details of possible forces, including contributions from nations attending the meeting, and said individual governments must now review the mission options.

The talks had dragged on through the weekend as officials tried to agree on the number of refugees as well as the merits and scope of any possible mission.

Support for a planned task force in eastern Zaire has cooled with the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Rwanda and the US decision not to commit combat troops.