Prague, 20 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - The large-scale international military force for Central Africa authorized by the United Nations five days ago now seems likely to be scaled down to more modest humanitarian relief units. That's the view of Canada, the designated leader of the multilateral effort, as well of the United States and most other countries that last week pledged substantial troop contributions to a planned force of up to 20,000 strong.
The reason for the rapid turn-around in the international community's attitude is simply that the situation on the ground has itself changed abruptly. The planned multilateral force was designed to protect an estimated 1.2 million Rwandan refugees settled and said to be "trapped" in makeshift camps in Eastern Zaire near the border between the two countries. It was also expected to facilitate the refugees' return to their native country, considered highly dangerous without military escort.
But within hours after the UN Security Council authorized the international force on Friday, thousands of the refugees began to stream across the border --peacefully and without major problems. By now more than half a million of them have left Zaire, and they are still coming.
Most of the returning refugees are Hutus who fled their country in 1994 after a military force led by members of the rival Tutsi tribe took control of Rwanda and set up a new government. The Hutu exodus occurred after what was universally called a "genocide" by murderous militia-men of their own tribe in Rwanda. At the time, some 40,000 Hutu militia members slaughtered up to one million minority Tutsis --one-eighth of Rwanda's entire population. Many of the murderers fled to Zaire with the larger mass of Hutu refugees, who feared retribution for the genocide. The militia-men were said to have prevented their fellow-tribesmen from going home over the past two years.
It is still not clear what triggered the return of the Hutus late last week. Some reports say that the Hutu militia-men who controlled many of the refugee camps in Zaire were routed by disciplined Zairian Tutsi rebels --who also scored some victories over rag-tag units of Zaire's own army. Other reports suggest that the Rwandan government, which does not want an international military force on its territory, got word to the Hutu refugees that they could return home without fear of being mistreated. Some analysts say that both factors were at work and that the Rwandan Government had armed and supported the Zairian Tutsi rebels.
Whatever the reasons for the mass exodus, the effect on the international community has been swift. Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien declared that "there is no longer any need for a military intervention." The priority now, Chretien said, was humanitarian assistance. U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said Washington was changing its plans drastically: Instead of providing several thousand troops, including 1,000 combat-ready soldiers on the ground, the United States will limit its contribution to less than 1,000 altogether, and all of them will providing logistics support for humanitarian relief rather than doing any fighting.
Rwanda's government, still seeking to avoid a military intervention, now says that all of the refugees have returned home. The UN's High Commission for Refugees and other relief agencies in Zaire say that there still are hundreds of thousand of Rwandan Hutus seeking to return home. The humanitarian groups are clearly more credible, but participants in the international force will seek to sort out the truth in two meetings later this week.
More than likely, the meetings will end up favoring a mission that is heavy on humanitarian relief and light on armed soldiers. That's a far cry from the risky multilateral military intervention that almost got under way last week.