Prague, 13 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - After weeks of delay, the international community has finally agreed on sending a multilateral force of up to 20,000 troops to eastern Zaire, in Central Africa.
The force's mission will be to provide emergency relief and protection for what is estimated to be 1.2 million refugees from neighboring Rwanda trapped in the area. Its formation and early dispatch became a reality yesterday when President Bill Clinton agreed to commit U.S. military resources to the operation.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the United States planned to send about 1,000 ground troops to Zaire, and several thousand more outside the country will take part in airlift and other support operations. Their aim is to open a corridor from the Zairian town of Goma -- now in the hands of local rebels -- to the Rwandan border, a distance of five kilometers.
The United Nations Security Council is expected to authorize the operation formally at a meeting in New York tomorrow. Earlier this week, Canada agreed to lead the multinational force while contributing a contingent of about 1,000 soldiers. France and Britain have pledged to send substantial troop contributions as well, with Spain, Italy and Hungary prepared to send smaller contingents. Seven African states have also agreed to participate in the force, whose mission is expected to last at least four months but could take many more.
The Goma and other safe corridors the force will seek to create would allow humanitarian relief to reach the refugees, most of whom have lived in make-shift camps in the area for the past two years. But in recent weeks, many refugees have scattered into the bush to escape fighting among rebel groups of the Tutsi tribe, militias of the rival Hutu tribe and the Zairian army. The corridors also could eventually be used to begin the return of the refugees to Rwanda, which the United States and many other countries now believe is the only long-term solution for curbing decades-old tribal warfare between Tutsis and Hutus in the area.
The refugees are largely Hutus, who fled their native country two years ago after a Tutsi-led military force took control of the country. The Hutus feared retribution for was universally called a "genocide," carried out by militia-men of their tribe in Rwanda. Up to one million minority Tutsis -- about one-eighth of the entire Rwandan population -- were slaughtered in the conflict. Many of the estimated 40,000 Hutu militia members fled to Zaire with them.
Heavy fighting that erupted this morning around Goma between Tutsi rebels and Hutu fighters point up the risks the new multinational force will incur when it deploys in Zaire. Participating nations like the United States, Britain and France have made clear that their soldiers will not attempt to disarm the powerful Hutu militias established in eastern Zaire. They are reluctant to risk casualties by pushing for anything more than a humanitarian mission to deliver aid, which will be given official blessing by the U.N. Security Council. This is particularly true of the United States, which led an ill-fated UN operation in Somalia three years ago --and saw of 18 of its soldiers killed.
But if the Hutu militias are not disarmed, many aid officials say, it will be impossible to distribute food, water and medicine properly. And the potential for another ill-defined, hastily-mounted mission also worries Western governments, which fear a third disaster on the scale of previous UN operations in both Somalia and Bosnia. In both cases, troops on a humanitarian mission were sent into a chaotic region where there was no cease-fire and little prospect of one being imposed. That is precisely the situation in Zaire today.
The formation of the new international force for Central Africa also marks the effective end of France's 35-year-old strong influence in the area. In 1994, in the wake of the Tutsi takeover of Rwanda, France launched "Operation Turquoise" to set up a safe zone in the country. Its troops were cheered by the armed Hutus, earlier trained and armed by the French, who were responsible for the genocide of the Tutsis. As a result, this time the Tutsi-led Rwandan government refused to allow France any major role in the multilateral force.
French President Jacques Chirac was quoted as telling his cabinet yesterday that "the time for unilateral (French) intervention is over." The time may also be over for the halcyon days when much of the African continent was Paris' "private hunting ground" ("chasse gardee"). According to Gerard Prunier, a French African specialist with close ties to the government, authoritarian rulers supported by the French in neighboring countries like Cameroon and Gabon are now "absolutely frantic" because they have ethnic problems of their own and are worried about diminishing French influence.
Prunier is blunt-spoken in his analysis: "The chickens are really coming home to roost," he says. "The French long held the notion that dictators were good for Paris, and the Africans didn't deserve any better. We have been behaving like slobs, and finally we have to pay the bill."