UNITED NATIONS — Plans for a Canadian-led international relief mission to Central Africa moved ahead Wednesday despite a continuing dispute over whether it is still needed.
"The brakes are not on, the operation is not on hold," Canadian Deputy Foreign Minister Gordon Smith told reporters here after a meeting of U.N. officials, representatives of nations contributing to the proposed expedition and African delegates.
Smith said the Rwandan government continues to object to aspects of the proposal, particularly any military participation.
But he said U.N. refugee officials and private relief agencies want military protection for aid workers ministering to hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming back into Rwanda from neighboring Zaire.
Despite their objection to the presence of foreign troops, the Rwandans are not opposed to an "air bridge" bringing food, medicine and other supplies into the region, Smith added.
The United States has already announced that it is scaling back its commitment from as many as 5,000 troops, including combat soldiers, to less than 1,000 pilots, cargo handlers and air traffic controllers.
Military planners from participating countries will meet Friday in Stuttgart, Germany, to decide on the size of the force needed, Smith said.
He said he expects the force to be considerably smaller than the 12,000 originally projected, and that the "zero option" of sending in no heavily armed troops is under consideration.
The situation in Central Africa has changed dramatically since Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien proposed the mission nearly two weeks ago. At that time, it was feared that more than 1 million Hutu refugees driven by warfare from camps into the rain forests and the volcanic plains of eastern Zaire were in danger of dying of thirst, starvation and cholera.
But after the Zairian army was routed by Tutsi rebels, the refugees began trekking back to their native Rwanda, which most had left in 1994. It is now believed more than 600,000 have returned, and there were reports out of eastern Zaire on Wednesday that tens of thousands more were moving toward Rwanda.
Tutsi rebels in eastern Zaire, meanwhile, fired a burst of antiaircraft fire Wednesday at a U.S. Navy plane as it flew over a rally of rebel supporters in the town of Goma. The aircraft was not hit.