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US Taps African Despot for Help In Rwanda Crisis

UNITED States officials are increasingly concerned about the prospect of renewed violence in the battered nation of Rwanda. To help forestall such a catastrophe, the US is quietly turning for help to a notorious African despot it has shunned for years: Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko. US officials are under no illusions about Mr. Mobutu, whose 30-year rule has been marred by corruption and human rights violations and whose own rule is so precarious that he lives on an isolated estate hundreds of miles from the Zairian capital. Whether Mobutu will help remains to be seen. As of this writing Zaire continued to forcibly expatriate thousands of Rwandan refugees who have encamped on its soil for months. Aid officials said they believed Zaire's leaders are trying to force the United Nations to find another country to share the Rwanda refugee burden. At the same time, US officials recognize that by virtue of geographical proximity and historically close ties to the former Rwandan Hutu leadership, the wily Mobutu is uniquely positioned to help solve the Rwandan crisis. According to Clinton administration sources, low-level talks are quietly being held in Washington through an intermediary said to be close to Mobutu. One purpose of the talks is to explore ways in which the Zairian leader can help prevent the renewal of a conflict that has already claimed more than half-a-million lives. ''We've got to deal with what we've got, and Mobutu is a real politician who understands the game,'' says one senior administration source. ''Mobutu is an absolutely critical dynamic in the situation.'' The Mobutu gambit ''Given the unwillingness of the international community to do anything, it's hard to see any other way of handling the situation in Rwanda other than a Mobutu gambit,'' concurs a well-placed congressional source. The administration official quickly adds that the US will neither engage in direct talks with Mobutu in the US nor grant Mobutu a long-sought visa to come to Washington unless he takes specific steps to democratize Zaire. The minimum requirement, the official says, will be a timetable for elections and international verification of the entire election process. ''Until he does something on the democratization front in Zaire - regardless of what he does for Rwanda and Burundi - the US will not grant Mobutu a visa to come to Washington,'' the official says. An orgy of ethnic violence was touched off in Rwanda last year following an unexplained plane crash that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. The violence abated after members of the country's minority Tutsi tribe took control of the government and 1.5 million of its majority Hutu population fled to neighboring Zaire. Another 700,000 fled to Tanzania. But with the rapid rearming and training of members of the former Rwandan Armed Forces (ex-FAR's) in the Zairian refugee camps, Western observers are concerned about a new wave of violence - which is where Mobutu comes in. Diplomatic observers say one way to prevent future violence would be to create an ''interpositionary force'' made up of Zairian soldiers to keep the armed rebels and Rwandan government forces separated. Fifteen hundred soldiers from Mobutu's Israeli-trained elite guard are already deployed to maintain order in the refugee camps. US officials estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 additional regular Army troops would be needed to form a fire wall or cordon sanitaire between the ex-FARs and 15,000 heavily armed Rwandan troops that have been mobilized along the border to ward off large-scale incursions. Mobutu's forces could also play a useful role by seizing the ringleaders of the genocide perpetrated by the Hutus, most of whom are now in camps in Goma and Bukavu that are patrolled by Zairian soldiers. US officials say solving the Rwanda crisis begins with bringing some 400 principle offenders to trial at the International Court of Justice at the Hague - a task only Zaire can perform, many observers say - then for the Rwandan government to declare a general amnesty for all others. That would remove the fear of prosecution that dissuaded all but about 400 families per week from crossing back over the border - until they started expelling them in larger numbers over the weekened. As many as 11,000 Rwandans from the giant Mugunga refugee camp have now driven back into their homeland by Zairian soldiers. UN officials on-scene reported that some refugees were robbed by the troops. Upward of 60,000 other refugees have now fled into the surrounding hills, to avoid repatriation. Resolving the Rwandan crisis in some manner would serve Mobutu's interests. Until now, his government has effectively lost control over the eastern province of Kivu where the teeming Rwandan refugee camps are located and which unsuccessfully rebelled against Mobutu's rule during the 1960s. US officials say they have no evidence to refute a May 1995 report that the Human Rights Watch Arms Project issued, which alleges that a steady stream of arms shipments and other forms of military assistance have reached the ex-FAR forces from or with the help of - among other countries - France, South Africa, and China. The report implicates Mobutu's own troops, which, it says, ''have played a pivotal role in facilitating the reemergence as a powerful military force those directly implicated in the Rwandan genocide.'' The arming and training of Hutu forces in eastern Zaire is the main reason why the UN Security Council last week unanimously agreed to lift a year-old arms embargo on Rwanda, enabling the government to defend against rebel incursions. UN officials have charged that anger at this vote may be one reason why Zaire has apparently decided to oust some Rwandan refugees. Many diplomatic observers doubt that the ex-FAR forces have the wherewithal to launch a sustained offensive inside Rwanda. Instead, they speculate that their probable purpose is to invade Rwanda and use their occupation of limited areas across the border as a bargaining chip to gain concessions, perhaps including a role in a Rwandan coalition government. US officials express frustration that European allies with traditional ties to central Africa, including Belgium, France, and Germany, have been reluctant participants in the effort to devise long-term solutions to the Rwanda/Burundi crisis. An interagency group of about three dozen Clinton officials now meets twice a week to deal with the situation in Rwanda and Burundi. President Clinton himself is briefed on the matter several times a week, according to administration sources. The administration is also concerned about the increasing level of cooperation between the Hutus in eastern Zaire and Hutu extremists in Burundi. Credible reports indicate that joint military activities in northern Burundi have been mounted against the Burundian government, threatening a wider crisis. The durable Mobutu ingratiated himself to the US during the cold war with strong anti-Soviet rhetoric and by allowing Zaire to be used as a transshipment point for arms to Angolan rebel forces fighting a Marxist regime in Angola. But the Bush and Clinton administrations have kept him at arms length since rioting almost toppled his government in 1991. He and members of his family have been barred from visiting the US since 1993. Last month a disparate group of Washington lobbyists and lawmakers took up Mobutu's cause, urging that the State Department should grant Mobutu a visa to visit Washington during a scheduled trip to the UN in the fall. The failed effort was spearheaded by Henri Damas Omgba, a Cameroonian suspected of illegal drug and arms deals. He reportedly spent $1 million of Mobutu's money on the project. It won the support of various congressional conservatives, members of the congressional black caucus, and at least two lawmakers known to be close to the pro-Israel lobby. Zaire was the first black African nation to recognize Israel. It also won major backing from TV evangelist Pat Robertson, whose Christian Coalition has extensive diamond mining, timber, and gold interests in the former Belgian colony and who has a close personal relationship with Mobutu. Can Mobutu deliver? Diplomatic observers say Mobutu is intent on securing a visa because a well-publicized visit to Washington would shore up his flagging standing at home. Having failed to secure a visa through aggressive lobbying in Washington, they say, he is now likely to try currying favor by helping with the crisis in Rwanda. ''If he delivered on Rwanda/Burundi, I think the US would lift the visa restriction,'' speculates a former State Department official.,

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