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U.S. troops head for Africa to await possible Zairian evacuation


March 21, 1997
Web posted at: 9:49 p.m. EST (0249 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "Several hundred" U.S. troops are being sent to Africa to prepare for the possible evacuation of Americans from strife-torn Zaire, the Pentagon said Friday.

Meanwhile, Navy ships involved in the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Albania were being moved from the Adriatic Sea in the direction of Zaire in case they are needed for a similar evacuation effort.

Troops shifting to Congo and Gabon

The Pentagon said Army troops would move over the weekend from a base in Vicenza, Italy, to Brazzaville, Congo, and Libreville, Gabon, to prepare for possible evacuations.

No decision has been made on an evacuation mission. The troops are simply an "enabling force" that would augment the U.S. military survey team in the region and lay the groundwork for troops that would actually carry out the rescues, the Pentagon said.

"The State Department makes the call on any evacuation," said one defense official. "We do not have an order to carry out that mission. This is an effort to be more ready if we are called on."

The Pentagon would not say exactly how many troops would be leaving, but sources said as many as 300 paratroopers from the Southern European Task Force -- the Army's quick reaction force in Europe -- would be involved.

About 650 U.S. citizens are in Kinshasa, the Zairian capital, and the surrounding area.

Navy ships move closer to Africa

Meanwhile, Pentagon sources said the amphibious assault ships U.S.S. Nassau and U.S.S. Pensacola have been "released" from the evacuation operation in Albania and will move from the Adriatic to the western Mediterranean Sea, closer to Africa.

The ships are being moved toward the region as a precaution, the sources said.

The two ships carry a force of about 1,500 Marines as well as helicopters that could be used to transport civilians. In addition to transport helicopters, the ships bring with them AH-1 Super Cobra attack helicopters and AV-8H Harrier "jump jets."

Earlier Friday, Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Zairian situation was being given a day-by-day and hour-by-hour assessment.

"There is still planning under way to make sure our citizens are safe, and we of course take our direction from the State Department and our ambassador on the ground," Cohen said. "We remain in a prepartorial stage to make sure we can act if action is necessary."

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.


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