TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Troops Heading Into Zaire

November 15, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Today the Bosnian people are far better off than they were a year ago. Their prospects for a future peace and freedom are much brighter. Already, the change in the day-to-day lives of the people there is dramatic. Market places are full of life, not death. More people have roofs over their head, food on their tables, heat, and hot water. The routines of normal life–going to work, coming home from school–are slowly becoming a reality. Bosnia’s bitter harvest of hatred, however, has not yet disappeared.

For the last 12 months, the killing has stopped, and with time, the habits of peace can take hold. This success we owe to IFOR, but its achievements on the military side have not been matched, despite all our efforts by similar progress on the civilian side. Civilian police forces must be better trained. We must complete training and equipping the Bosnian federation military so that a stable balance of power can take hold and minute aggression is less likely. And municipal elections were made to be organized and held.

Let me emphasize that the Bosnian people, with the help of international civilian groups, will be responsible for all this work, but for a time, they will need the stability and the confidence that only an outside security force can provide. NATO has been studying options to give them the help that time will provide by providing a new security presence in Bosnia when IFOR withdraws.

That study is now complete. I have carefully reviewed its options, and I have decided to instruct the United States representative to NATO to inform our allies that, in principle, the United States will take part in a follow-on force in Bosnia. For my agreement in principle to become a commitment, however, I must be satisfied that the final recommendation NATO adopts and the operational plan it develops are clear, limited, and achievable.

The new mission’s focus should be to present a resumption of hostilities so that economic reconstruction and political reconciliation can accelerate. That will require a strong but limited military presence in Bosnia able to respond quickly and decisively to any violations of the cease-fire. The new mission will be more limited than IFOR and will require fewer troops. It will not face the fundamental military challenge of separating two hostile armies, because IFOR has accomplished that task.

It will be charged with working to maintain the stability that IFOR created. It will discourage the parties from taking up arms again, while encouraging them to assume full responsibility for their own security as quickly as possible. IFOR plowed the field in which the seeds of peace have been planted.

This new mission will provide the climate for them to take root and the time to begin growing. Our military planners have concluded that this new mission will require fewer than half the number of troops we contributed to IFOR, about 8500. There will be an American commander and tough rules of engagement. Every six months, we will review the stability–whether the stability can be maintained with fewer forces. By the end of 1997, we expect to draw down to a much smaller deterrent force, about half the initial size. And we will propose to our NATO allies that by June of 1998 the mission’s work should be done and the forces should be able to withdraw.

The United States cannot and should not try to solve every problem in the world, but where our interests are clear and our values are at stake, where we can make a difference, we must act, and we must lead. Clearly, Bosnia is such an example.

Earlier this week, I also decided that, in principle, the United States should take part in an international humanitarian effort to be part of a release force that Canada will lead in Zaire. Two years ago, following genocide in Rwanda, more than a million Rwandans fled for Zaire.

Recently, their plight has worsened as fighting among militant forces has driven them from their camps. Violence has begun to spiral out of control, preventing relief agencies from providing food and medicine to the refugees, who are now vulnerable to starvation and to disease. The world’s most powerful nation must not turn its back on so many desperate people and so many innocent children who are now at risk.

The mission Canada proposes to lead and that I believe America should take part in would provide security for civilian relief agencies to deliver the aid these people must have and to help the refugees who so desire to return home to Rwanda. America’s contribution to such a force would match our special capabilities, such as providing security at the Goma airfield and helping to airlift allied forces. Neither the new security force in Bosnia, nor the humanitarian relief effort in Zaire will be free of risk but I will do everything in my power to minimize the risks by making sure both missions are clear and achievable before I give the green light.

HELEN THOMAS, UPI: Mr. President, what do you say to critics who say that you waited till after the election to make the announcement you’re sending troops abroad, or keeping troops in Bosnia?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I would say two things. First of all, it was well before the election that the NATO allies in Europe most closely concerned with this came to us and said, we do not believe that the civilian and political and economic functions have developed to the point where there can be no security presence in Bosnia, even though IFOR has done everything it was asked to do.

And I said that I would consider American participation if there were a clear mission with an achievable goal and that that was clear before the election. But more importantly, I would say that the NATO ministers met and made their recommendation to me just last week. We needed some time to study it. I had a meeting on it last evening, quite an extensive one, with General Shalikashvili making it a military case and with the Sec. Christopher and Sec. Perry and the whole national security team, met with the Vice President and me, and we have done this in a timely fashion, following the NATO timetable, and the most important thing the American people need to know is that that mission succeeded, it do what it was supposed to do in 12 months, but we, frankly–and when I say “we,” I mean all the people involved in NATO believe that we could make more economic and political progress that we were able to make. So we believe there should be a new but much more limited mission simply to maintain the security that has been established and to maintain the conditions in which the political and economic progress can be made.

REPORTER: Don’t you think you should have laid this idea out, though, while you were campaigning so that people had a sense that part of what they got when they got your re-election was the extension of this mission?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I believe that they did believe that. Keep in mind, before the election, it was said that the Europeans thought we ought to stay in a more limited way, and I said I would consider doing that. Frankly, I want to pay a compliment to Sen. Dole, I think, because he said in a very statesmanlike way that, that he would support doing that, that we had too big an investment in the success of the process. There was not a difference of opinion on it, and so that it did not–I think that it did not become more hotly debated in–in the campaign, and, therefore, it maybe wasn’t focused on by as many people, but the issue was out there. I couldn’t agree and describe a mission that had not yet been developed by the NATO military planners who are recommended to us, and so I–I would say that it maybe didn’t get the attention that it otherwise would have gotten, and it may be because Sen. Dole made what I thought was a very statesmanlike statement early on that of course if it had to be done that he would agree.

REPORTER: There are some reports of refugees in quite large numbers moving within Zaire back toward the Rwandan border and across, relief agencies in Rwanda saying that they have plenty of food and equipment and so forth once they’re back across the border. Is there a chance that this mission may not be needed?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, let me say we have some very good preliminary news about the prospects that the refugees will be able to go back to Rwanda and that it may work out better than we had originally thought, but I–I would say first of all it is preliminary, and secondly, obviously, if the dimensions of what has to be done could change based on realities on the ground, we’re watching it every day. I think that we have to be prepared for the prospect that we will still have to have some presence there to facilitate this and to make sure that as quickly as possible we get everything that is needed to them. I don’t think we know enough yet really to say that the mission won’t be needed. It’s a hopeful sign, but that’s all I can say right now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Zaire, the refugee camps are populated largely by Hutu refugees from Rwanda. Today many of them left the Mugunga camp and streamed towards Goma en route to their homeland. We have more in this report by Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITN: There are a million Hutu refugees in Eastern Zaire. Maybe half of them are now on their way home. They came to Zaire two years ago, confused, frightened, bullied by their leaders, who said all Hutus who stayed in Rwanda would be killed by the country’s Tutsi government. Now, war and violence and the beginning of hunger has loosened the Hutu leaders’ grip on power. The people have seized the moment. The camp they’ve abandoned is desolate and filthy. Yesterday afternoon there was fighting here. The last stand of the Hutu militia and the former Rwanda army before defeat by Tutsi-backed Zairean rebels.

The refugees say the militia have fled into the mountains, some soldiers tearing off their uniforms as they ran. Only the weakest and most destitute refugees remain. And the survivors of a massacre in the camp, 30 women and children dead, it’s not clear yet who killed them or why. It may never be known. Once terrified of leaving, today they were scrambling to get away. Some refugees must have followed the militia into the mountains, but it seems that the majority defied those they’ve obeyed almost unquestioningly until today. The militia, the Interahamway, and the former government soldiers spearheaded the genocide of Tutsis two years ago, and had mounted guerrilla raids into Rwanda. Now they’ve lost the protection of the refugee population.

SPOKESMAN: People are coming over six and seven deep, the line is continuous. If I translate that to a football crowd, I think we’re talking about tens of thousands, not just a few thousand over.

MS. HILSUM: Aid workers were initially stopped by Zairean rebel soldiers, whose onslaught broke up the camp, but they’re optimistic.

RAY WILKINSON, High Commission for Refugees: We’ve been in contact with the camp for the first time in many, many days yesterday, and our reports yesterday said that the camp was far better off than we–than a lot of people had anticipated. We heard the water situation in there was quite good, and that the food situation was quite good, and looking at these people, that’s absolutely the case. As you can see, most of these people seem to be in reasonably good shape.

MS. HILSUM: The rebels, backed by Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government, are directing the refugees to the border. Most aid workers support this, even though force has succeeded where two years of persuasion has failed.

MIKE MCDONAGH, CONCERN: I think the most important need is that they get back to the communes and that the massive amount of money that has been spent on these refugee camps is poured into Rwanda in order that maybe with economic assistance, reconciliation would become more possible.

MS. HILSUM: The crowds at the border overwhelmed the Rwandan authorities as the refugees waited patiently to be allowed through. Some are a few hours’ walk from home; for others, it will take a day. The Hutus are being received by those they’d been taught to fear most–Tutsi government officials, many plains clothes security men. But the Hutus showed no fear today. Maybe they were too tired, too used to being impassive in the face of danger. Rwanda’s president, a Hutu, himself, came to the border to greet the refugees. He told them they’re welcome, but he’s also said before that he can’t guarantee everyone’s safety when they return to the villages where some of their number took part in the genocide of Tutsis.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in Bosnia, which is slated to receive another round of U.S. troops, Bosnian President Ilija Izetbegovic today criticized NATO forces. He said they overreacted to fighting which broke out earlier this week when 150 Bosnian Muslims tried to return to homes they lost during the war. Two Muslim men were killed when Bosnian Serbs tried to stop the refugees’ return. The Muslims staged protests when U.S. troops sealed off roads leading to the village. Yesterday, Muslims and Serbs were angered when peacekeepers confiscated arms from both sides. Thousands of automatic weapons, grenades, and mortar shells were seized.

Such weapons were not allowed in the area according to the Dayton peace agreement, and one of the three key signatories of the Dayton peace accord, Croatia’s President, Franjo Tudjman, arrived in the United States today for cancer treatment. The 74-year-old Tudjman checked into Walter Reed Hospital in Washington this morning to undergo two weeks’ of treatment. His condition was described as quite serious. For more information about U.S. plans in Zaire and Bosnia, we turn now to Defense Secretary William Perry. I spoke with him this afternoon.