WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration may scale back planned U.S. military action to ease the humanitarian crisis in central Africa and help refugees inside Rwanda instead of securing an airport as a base of operations in neighboring Zaire, senior U.S. officials said Sunday.
A formal decision on the nature of the U.S. aid will be reached Wednesday at a meeting with European nations, officials said. They said they were cheered by the continuing exodus of refugees to their homes in Rwanda from Zairian camps but that U.S. military forces could still play a role by helping aid reach Rwanda.
On Wednesday, President Clinton agreed to send 1,000 ground troops and another 3,000 to 4,000 support troops as part of a multinational rescue mission to Zaire to be spearheaded by Canada.
"Now we're looking more at logistic support ... to make sure that the humanitarian assistance is given properly," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine K. Albright said on CNN's Late Edition on Sunday.
She said U.S. experts dispatched to the region estimate that between 12,000 and 15,000 refugees are crossing from Zaire to Rwanda every hour, with between 300,000 and 400,000 already back in their homeland.
The chief of a U.S. military team sent to assess the crisis has been meeting with the Rwandan government to discuss "several alternative plans to send logistics support in there if necessary" on a day's notice, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Perry added that roughly "2,000 people and dozens of airplanes" have been put on standby to provide the support.
The Rwandan government has said so far that it welcomes international humanitarian aid but opposes the dispatch of foreign troops to its territory.
A half-million refugees had been camped just west of Goma, Zaire. Most of them were members of the Hutu tribe and were under control of Hutu militias that are enemies of the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda.
The refugees fled their homeland two years ago, fearing retribution for Hutu massacres of Tutsis after Tutsi rebels overthrew a Hutu-dominated government.
When Clinton approved U.S. participation in a multinational rescue force, it appeared that a military presence would be needed because of the fear that those Hutu militias would oppose the relief and use the refugees as human shields or hostages. But the militias have fled, under attack from Zairian Tutsi rebels seeking to overthrow the Zairian government. With the militias gone, the refugees began to return to their homes in Rwanda.
One of Washington's options is still to try to help dispatch aid through Goma. Reports from Goma Sunday indicated that the area remained clogged, and Albright noted that despite the exodus, "there are people that are still wandering around Zaire."
But Albright indicated that the security force that Washington had planned for the Goma airport may not be needed, and Perry said without providing details that "the nature of the need (for U.S. help) is changing dramatically," even though some U.S. assistance was still required.
The proposed U.S. intervention has so far attracted little congressional criticism, although Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., said on Fox's "News Sunday" he had "serious reservations about whether we're needed." Nickles said, however, that if U.S. involvement will save hundreds of thousands of lives, he will support it.
The administration appears to have forestalled criticism by consulting broadly with congressional leaders. On NBC, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texsd, praised Clinton for "really making an effort ... to work more closely with us on these kinds of actions."