The Clinton administration is sending several hundred U.S. troops into western Africa to prepare for a possible evacuation of more than 500 Americans from Zaire, the Pentagon said Friday.
The move came as the State Department warned U.S. citizens to defer all travel to that country because of the potential for unrest.
Officials stressed that no order has been issued for an evacuation from Zaire and that the troop movement is strictly precautionary.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Pentagon officials said the U.S. forces already had begun their movement toward Africa as part of a "joint task force."
They said as many as 250 U.S. military men and women were being moved into the region just north and west of Zaire.
The troops primarily are coming from an Army airborne unit based in Italy. Forces from other services are included, as well as members of the U.S. Air Force Transportation Command, which is based in the United States.
Zaire has been in a civil war since last September. In that time, much of the eastern part of the nation has fallen to rebels who accuse President Mobutu Sese Seko of robbing the country to enrich himself. The rebels say they won't stop their offensive until they reach the capital, Kinshasa.
After undergoing treatment in Europe for prostate cancer, Mobutu returned to the capital Friday for the first time since early January.
In a baffling move, Mobutu's aides shooed a welcoming committee of government ministers and generals off the airport runway before he would disembark from his plane.
Mobutu's failure to appear in person or immediately address his people deepened the mysteries of how sick he is and why exactly he returned from France.
Rebel leader Laurent Kabila, meanwhile, received a jubilant welcome Friday in the eastern town of Kisangani, which his forces took last weekend.
A dancing crowd of 10,000 welcomed Kabila, waving palm fronds, symbols of peace, and chanting "We are free! We are free!"
The rebels have said they will stop fighting only after Mobutu holds direct talks with Kabila. Mobutu has so far refused.
"We negotiate first, first we negotiate," Kabila said.
At the State Department, spokesman Nicholas Burns said 35 dependents of U.S. government employees were expected to leave Zaire by the end of the day Friday.
The departures occurred after the State Department issued a statement late Thursday "strongly encouraging" dependents and other U.S. citizens to leave the country and other Americans not to travel to Zaire.
Only seven dependents of U.S. government employees in Zaire were expected to still be there after Friday, Burns said. Altogether, about 500 private Americans are in Zaire, 320 in Kinshasa, the State Department said.
The new American forces will augment a 30-member U.S. military team that has been in Zaire this week, helping determine what action might be necessary to evacuate Americans.
The new units will deploy to Brazzaville, in the Republic of the Congo, and Libreville, in the Republic of Gabon, and some may visit Zaire "if that becomes necessary as part of the planning process," the Pentagon said.
They will be taking some communications and transportation equipment with them, including some helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the officials said.
The task force will be commanded by Maj. Gen. Edwin Smith.
Gabon and the Congo are to the north and west of Zaire, and could be used as staging points for any kind of evacuation.
Zaire's capital is across a river from Brazzaville, and travel by boat is still possible, administration officials have said.