WASHINGTON — Canada named its highest-ranking soldier Thursday to lead an international force in eastern Zaire, as diplomats and military planners searched for ways to prevent about 45,000 armed militiamen--many of them accused war criminals--from disrupting the planned humanitarian airlift.
Canada's designation of Lt. Gen. Maurice Baril--its army chief and leading candidate for chief of staff of the country's unified armed services--to head the Zaire operation dramatizes the importance of the multinational effort to deliver food and medicine to more than 1 million sick and starving refugees.
But officials in Washington, Ottawa and at the United Nations acknowledged that the operation faces obstacles that could prove even more troublesome than the problems that plagued a similar relief effort in Somalia three years ago.
At least seven ethnic-based armies are deployed in the region where the 12,000-member international force--including as many as 5,000 Americans--plans to operate.
The White House has said the international force will not be deployed until all of the armed factions agree to allow it to do its work in peace, a requirement that seems, on its face, to be unattainable.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Washington realizes that there is no way to get a "written, signed cease-fire" from such diverse combatants. But he said the United States will insist on at least a tacit agreement by all sides to avoid conflict with international troops.
At the same time, U.S. and U.N. officials said the force will operate under "robust" rules of engagement. Asked what that means, a U.N. official responded: "They will shoot anyone who gets in their way."
Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force troops from California were sent to European bases Thursday for possible deployment to Zaire, officials said.
Two transport planes left Travis Air Force Base, about 40 miles northeast of San Francisco, on Thursday. More than 50 personnel were deployed, according to Lt. Craig Heighton, a Travis spokesman. The movements involved aircraft and tanker air crews; their destinations in Europe were not disclosed.
Most of the 1 million or so refugees are Hutus from Rwanda who fled in 1994 after a mostly Tutsi rebel force overthrew the Hutu-led government and established its own Tutsi-based regime. The Tutsi rebels intervened after the Hutu-dominated Rwanda army and allied Hutu militias went on a genocidal rampage in which they killed about 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians.
Although most of the refugees are civilians, the camps are controlled by remnants of the defeated Hutu army and its allies.
A senior U.S. military official said that between 20,000 and 30,000 former members of the Rwanda army and about 15,000 Hutu militiamen are interspersed among the refugees. Many of the militiamen and former soldiers are accused of war crimes.
It is unclear how the United States and its allies expect to get the Hutu militants to agree to a cease-fire.
One senior Pentagon official said Washington does not know whom the Hutus consider to be their leaders. U.S. and Canadian officials said it would be impossible to identify the former soldiers and the militia members--who wear no uniforms or distinguishing insignia--and separate them from the refugees.
Gordon Smith, Canada's deputy foreign affairs minister, told a news conference at the United Nations that if the international troops try to segregate and disarm Hutus, "the level of violence that would occur would be really very high, and the people killed would be not only the soldiers of the contributing countries, but many innocent refugees--women and children--in those camps."
U.N. officials said the best hope may be that the Hutu militia is as desperate for food, water and other aid as the refugees, and may not try to block relief efforts.
Officials are more optimistic about gaining the cooperation of the other factions. The most important of these are the Banyamulenge, a group of Tutsis who have lived in Zaire for generations but took up arms against the Zairian government after President Mobutu Sese Seko's government sought to take away their citizenship.
With a militia of about 3,000 fighters, the Banyamulenge drove the Zairian army out of eastern Zaire and now hold Goma, the town where the international force plans to make its headquarters.
A senior Pentagon official said the Banyamulenge have agreed to cooperate with the international force.
But Reuters news service reported that faction leader Laurent Kabila told a news conference in Goma that he would oppose the international force unless it agreed to disarm the Hutu fighters in the camps. He said the force, as envisioned by Canada and the United States, would be "useless."
Kabila's forces skirmished Thursday with Hutu fighters--believed to be members of the radical militia known as the Interahamwe--but the Pentagon said the fighting was sporadic and relatively low level.