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Lawmakers Express Concerns on Zaire Operation

November 15, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Clinton administration is trying to reassure skeptical lawmakers that the proposed deployment of 4,000 U.S. troops to Zaire will not turn into another Somalia.

Before U.S. troops join a Canadian-led multinational force trying to prevent starvation among 1 million refugees in Zaire, the administration wants warring factions there to adopt a cease-fire.

Although the Americans would be armed to defend themselves, ``we aren’t anticipating a combat operation,″ Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters Thursday. ``What we would like is a pledge by the sides that there will be a cease-fire.″

The proposal to send 1,000 U.S. troops to secure the Goma airfield and about 3,000 others to open an air bridge of relief supplies was still under discussion at the United Nations.

In addition to Canada and the United States, the force of 10,000 to 12,000 is expected to include troops from France, Britain, Spain, South Africa and several other nations.

Among the differences to be resolved before U.N. authorization is the duration of the mission. Canada has recommended the force remain in Zaire for six months. The United States wants a four-month mandate.

President Clinton agreed in principle on Wednesday to dispatch a force, spearheaded by the 1,000 Army paratroopers from their base in Vincenza, Italy.

Senate Republicans were quick to express concern about the dangers of the proposed mission. Zairean rebels control the airport near Goma in eastern Zaire, which U.S. forces would use to ferry supplies to the refugees.

Rep. Ben Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said the administration must insist on a ``real″ cease-fire before any multinational force moves in.

``It is ... imperative that the president provide assurances to the Congress and the American people that U.S. troops will not be drawn into a Somalia-like quagmire of warlord-hunting,″ Gilman said in a statement.

Defense Secretary William Perry told reporters the United States wants ``the acquiescence″ of the warring factions before entering the region.

``We are not planning a mission to go in and disarm factions or to separate military from refugees,″ Perry said. ``This is a humanitarian mission.″

Perry met with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday in an effort to calm lawmakers’ concerns, a meeting Bacon said ``went extremely well.″

But Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a member of the committee, said the administration had ``good intentions but no clear goals″ and was acting ``as if the memories and lessons of Somalia have been forgotten.″

U.S. forces entered Somalia to avert massive starvation in late 1992, but 18 Americans were killed in a botched effort to capture Somali warlord Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Within months, U.S. forces withdrew from the African country.

By contrast, Bacon said plans call for troops sent to Zaire to avoid the tricky job of disarming Hutu militiamen who live among the refugees, or even separating them from the refugees they hide among.

He said the 1,000 troops would attempt to open a two-mile corridor from the Goma airport into a border town in Rwanda, where relief supplies are located.

Air Force units _ primarily from U.S. bases in Europe _ would set up logistics and cargo-handling bases in nearby countries, in order to stage relief flights.

The airport in Goma has a limited tarmac and is only able to handle two C-5 transport planes at a time, Bacon said.

Other U.S. forces would include civil affairs specialists and psychological operations units, which specialize in using broadcasts or printed information to communicate with the local populace.

A 43-member U.S. survey team, led by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Edwin P. Smith, arrived in Rwanda on Thursday for preliminary work.

For months, the administration had ruled out use of ground troops in Central Africa but gradually dropped its opposition as the humanitarian crisis worsened.

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