U.S. Steps Up Aid Effort for Rwanda

GOMA, Zaire -- U.S. Army Brigadier-General Jack Nix flew into eastern Zaire on Tuesday to command the operation ordered by President Bill Clinton to aid more than a million Rwandan refugees stalked by cholera and starvation.

"To stop the dying and relieve the suffering -- that is my immediate mission," Nix told reporters at Goma airport.

He said the air bridge used during the Gulf War was being set up, but said he did not know yet how many troops would be deployed or how soon.

During a stopover at Uganda's Entebbe airport, he said he would visit the Zairean border towns of Goma and Bukavu and might visit the Rwandan capital of Kigali later in the week.

The United States is using Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria, as hub of its operation to provide more than a million Rwandan refugees in Zaire with food, medicine and clean water, and help an estimated 190,000 Rwandan refugees in neighboring Burundi.

Nix said the U.S. operation might switch its focus to providing clean water instead of food. Thousands are dying in the Goma area daily from cholera because of contaminated water.

Nix flew into Goma in a small jet after a giant military transport plane brought in essential equipment to purify contaminated water.

Teams of U.S. soldiers set up their first water purification plant on the shores of Lake Kivu. Further down the water's edge refugees collected drinking water close to a floating corpse.

Just outside Goma airport, refugees were collapsing with cholera, their bodies piling up at roadside as quickly as burial teams of French military and aid agencies could collect them.

Mass graves are full and aid workers decided Monday to start burning corpses, an act that is anathema to many Africans who believe it destroys the spirits of the dead.

While the relief effort slowly builds up momentum the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is starting a program to encourage refugees to return to Rwanda.

"It's taken us until now to get the aid effort off the ground. Hopefully we can balance the effort to feed and water 1.2 million people with the process of getting them home." UNHCR spokesman Ray Wilkinson said. Aid workers estimate about 14,000 refugees have died of cholera and other causes since the mass exodus began on July 14, as rebel forces of the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front routed the Hutu-led government army.

UN World Food Program spokeswoman Mercedes Sayagues said her agency wanted to place stockpiles of food along the roads inside Rwanda to sustain refugees going home.

"A spontaneous repatriation is possible," she told reporters.

More than 800 Hutu refugees were counted by a UNHCR worker crossing back into Rwanda via the main border post Tuesday morning, but hundreds more were making their way back through woods and banana plantations.